By Terri Favro
I found it spread-eagled on a sack of organic potatoes –– one of those dolls with a ring that you pull to make it baby-talk. Only, it didn’t look like a baby. Its face was the colour of grubby Band-Aids, its eyes ink-smeared as if someone had tried to scribble on mascara with a ballpoint pen.
A black turtleneck was sewn to the doll’s body, angry stitches cutting deep into its soft vinyl skin. Its knees were flexed upward in two sharp Vs: up close, I could see the bendable joints had been cut open, filled with shards of glass, then painted with varnish or shellac or glue or whatever. Maybe to stop the slivers from working their way out.
Somebody really had a hate on for this doll.
I pulled the talking-ring. A string zipped out like a fishing line but instead of going ‘I love you mommy’ or ‘change my diaper,’ a scratchy little voice said: Cattiva ragazza cazzo stronza Beatnik!
I backed out of the cold cellar and took the rotting stairs two at a time.
Upstairs, Mommi and her best-friend-slash-therapist Bridget were picking at raspberry date squares from the organic farmer’s market. Mommi was dividing and subdividing crumbs into lines with the side of her hand as if getting ready to snort them.
I dropped into a chair, trying to catch my breath. Mommi barely glanced at me. She must have just taken her pills. The red blotch above her breast was not heaving up and down, for a change. It had been a tattoo of a little spider –– a tarantula, really –– that looked like it was crawling out of her bra on its way up to her throat. Bridget said the tat was out of sync with Mommi’s current psycho-demographic cluster so Mommi had it lasered off, even though it had been crawling on her skin for, like, thirty years.
Bridget served herself another square –– as usual, without offering me one. Her chewing lips bulged like the ass of a dog getting ready to squeeze out a turd. Through a mouthful of gluteny goodness, she said: “Third scrip this month. You want me to lose my licence?”
Mommi kept dreamily dividing crumbs into lines. “If there’s trouble, I’ll go cold turkey.” So calm, you’d never know she’d spent the morning pacing around, screaming into the phone at Madison.
Before Bridget could list the usual withdrawal symptoms – sweatsanxiety, nauseaagitationconstipationsexualdysfunction — her phone rang, sending her into the hallway with the long white ear worm that helped her suck billable hours out of patients in Toronto.
Mommi turned to me: “Courtney, go to the cold cellar and check if we have potatoes for kugel.”
I shook my head. “No way. There’s a scary doll down there. It talked. In Spanish or French or whatever. Something about a beatnik.”
“Probably belonged to a little girl who lived here way back. Now, scoot! Mommi wants to talk to Bridget alone.”
I dragged myself back to the cellar door and held my breath against the fuggy smell of rotting grapes, left over from the olden days. Mommi said Euro Traditionals used to make wine down there.
The old wine barrels are gone now. Pop called a Blues in Motion guy to haul them out of the cellar along with a bunch of big plaster statues: a bare-chested hippie holding a griddle, a girl with two eyes on a plate, and a blonde stepping on a snake.
The Blues in Motion took the barrels and sold them to an antiquer for twice what Pop paid in haulage fees. He wouldn’t touch the statues, though, leaving Pop to wrestle their crumbly bodies up the stairs. Madison told us they were Saint Lawrence, Saint Lucy and Mary Queen of the World.
Pop asked her what the hell the guy-saint was doing with a waffle iron. Madison explained that the Romans cooked him to death on it.
She knows stuff like that because she reads a lot. Our real Dad was a famous dead Canadian alcoholic junkie boxer cowboy poet, Fraser ‘Duff’ Mackenzie. He won the Governor-General Award for a poetry collection called Ice. All about the majesty of the disappearing North, blah, blah, blah. He also wrote about lumberjacks, factory workers, truck drivers, bartenders. My favourite poem by Duff is about a guy who gets decapitated in a stamping machine.
Mommi met Duff in the days when he was living over a bar, doing poetry readings, cadging drinks and picking fights. Madison thinks she slept with him because she figured some of his poetic genius would rub off on her. But as my sister says, what Urban Bohemian gives her kid a New Age Suburban mall rat name like Madison? These days she tells everyone her name is Madéleine.
Madison is big like Duff, an Amazon when she works out, but too easily running to fat (Mommi says) whens she slacks off. Me, I’m like Mommi, petite and redheaded. She says Madison got all the surly genes and I got the glamour ones. Lucky me.
In the end, Mommi touched up the saints with paint and stuck them along the driveway that snakes from our house to the concession road. She told Pop that from now on, every time he left for Toronto, he’d feel like he was on a pilgrimage.
Pop thought the Euro Traditionals built the cold cellar but the Blues in Motion guy explained that all the farmhouses have them, a sort of bricked-up closet that we’ve filled with Mommi’s put-up fruits and veggies and shit.
No windows. No heat, of course. And now, no weird Beatnik doll. All I found on the potato sack was a dusting of grit.
When I got back upstairs, Bridget and Mommi were knocking back glasses of Cab Merlot and arguing about Oxycontin versus Oxycodone. By the time they’d put dinner on, and Pop had arrived from the city, and Bridget had opened another bottle of organic red, the Beatnik doll had been forgotten.
We’ve only had a cold cellar for two years. That’s when Mommi had her Fall From Grace and we moved to Bramborough. Or, as Madison calls it, ‘Bugfuckville’. Don’t bother googling it. Bramborough’s been gobbled up by a bigger town. Some of our neighbours have bumper stickers reading PROUD BRAMBOROUGHITE! Mommi stuck one on her Volvo, even though we got here after Bramborough had technically vanished.
Mommi used to be a graphic designer at one of Canada’s top ten creative boutiques, until her boss found her under her desk one day. He thought she’d had a stroke or heart attack –– something stress related, i.e., respectable. But when they took her to Emerg, they said she’d passed out from a combination of Ritalin, cocaine and alcohol. Broke her knee in the fall. Her boss visited her in the hospital and presented her with an arrangement of anthuriums and a Package. Madison explained to me that a Package means you’re toast. She said all that Mommi was good for now was working as a volunteer school crossing guard. Which wasn’t actually true. Crossing guards have to pass a police check. In the year leading up to her Fall From Grace, Mommi had been up on shoplifting charges twice: once for pocketing a lipstick, the second time for sticking a canned ham under her topcoat. You might expect that from an Urban Bohemian but by then Mommi had been a hard-working Sushi & Shiraz, going on twenty years.
A warning sign, Pop admitted later.
Pop bought the century house at an estate auction to give Mommi a fresh start. She had the interior painted in Leaf, Surf and Daybreak. Although the house has six bedrooms, Madison and I shared a room, like always. Madison wanted to paint it Midnight but I voted for Sunflower. I won.
Mommi ArtShopped and HomeSensed the other rooms, filling them with antiques and bolsters and shit, and told us to invite our friends over. “What friends?” asked Madison.
The wood floors were stained Oxblood, which made crossing the hall feel like walking through a crime scene. The sanding and staining was done by a young, blonde Blues in Motion who worked with his shirt off, forcing us to look at his gross back acne. We nicknamed him Muscles.
Once, Madison and I were outside admiring the driveway saints when Muscles drove up in his truck. “Wanna ride in my whip?” he asked, looking at Madison. It was like I didn’t exist, which hurt, me being the cute one and all.
Madison hopped in with him too fast for me to follow. Then the truck tore off toward the concession road, leaving me with Mommi.
That evening I was looking out our bedroom window when I saw Muscles’ truck pull up in front of the house and stop in a shady spot near St. Lucy. It was getting dark but I could see what they were doing. Like in that kids’ rhyme:
Muscles and Madison parked by a tree,
Madison left for the University of Calgary this past September. She told Pop that she wanted Calgary because it has a hot anthropology department. Privately, she told me that she wanted to get far away from Mommi.
“But she’s getting better,” I pointed out.
Madison started peeling enamel from one thumb, something she does when she’s troubled. “Remember Muscles? Mommi fucked him. Even though she knew I kind of liked him.”
“No way!” I said, but suspected she was right. Mommi had been a hot mess the whole time the floors were being stripped and stained. And once, I peeked into her room and saw the heaving connect-the-dots of pustules and cysts on Muscles’ back. He was kneeling at the foot of the bed with Mommi spread on the duvet as if she was serving herself to him for lunch. He was lapping away between her legs while she rubbed the back of his big blonde head like a lump of raw dough.
“She’s a nasty twisted evil stupid messed-up fucking bitch, Courtney,” said Madison. “And you of all people know it.”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
Since Madison left and Pop spends most of the week in the city running an environmentally friendly dry cleaning chain (Green Clean™, maybe you’ve heard of it), it’s mostly just Mommi and me creaking around the house unless Bridget stops by to renew one of Mommi’s prescriptions.
One morning, I got into the car with Mommi for the drive to school. She was staring out of the windshield like she didn’t see me.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes. No. Do you have to go to school today?”
“There’s a test.”
“I’ll write you a note.”
“But I studied!”
“Look: I’m having a bad day. I’ve been thinking about how I screwed things up with Madison.” Mommi’s lipstick made her mouth look blobby. I could see the ghost of the old tattoo pulsing up and down, up and down, above the edge of her shirt. “We can make cookies together!”
I sighed and got out of the car.
Back in the house, I tossed my coat on the floor but Mommi didn’t say anything. Then I sat at the kitchen island and watched her get out the flour and Chip-Its and butter and shit.
“Don’t make too many. I won’t want any,” I told her.
“You will, once you smell them baking,” she said, bright and motherly as hell.
She took the stick of cold butter and threw it into a ceramic bowl, then went at it with a pastry cutter, trying to cream it. Which would take, like, about a week, the butter was so hard.
“Melt, you fucker,” she kept muttering.
“I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to do it,” I said. “You really have no idea how to bake cookies, do you?”
Mommi threw the pastry cutter across the room. Then she sat down and put her head in her hands. I watched her have a cry. Eventually she stopped and got out the electric beaters and creamed the hell out of the butter, baked the cookies and ate all of them herself. Afterwards, I curled up beside her in bed. When I woke up the next morning, she was sleeping so heavily that I went out onto the concession road myself to catch the school bus. I was standing at the end of the driveway but the bus whipped right by. I glimpsed Bicycles & Bookbags through the windows, bouncing in their seats. I wanted to be with them so badly, it made my stomach hurt.
I trudged back up to the house under the watchful eyes of the driveway saints. Bare-chested St. Lawrence gave me a little nod and a shy smile that reminded me of Muscles. Mary Queen of the World extended an open hand as if trying to high-five me. I put my head down and kept going.
Inside, Mommi was still sprawled in bed, snoring. High on Chip-Its. I sat in the kitchen amidst the crumbs from yesterday’s cookie orgy. I tried calling Madison but her phone just rang and rang and rang. I ended up reading a magazine with a bloated pastel cake on the cover and a headline screaming ARE YOUR KIDS OK? 20 TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS! It read like a communication from Jupiter.
Christmas came and went with Madison spending most of her break in Toronto. She bussed to Bramborough on Christmas Eve and ate Mommi’s dust-dry turkey in silence. She’d lost, like, twenty pounds. “You look awesome!” I said but she just mumbled, “I’ve got friends now.” She dumped her suitcase on my bed and unloaded so much stuff, there was nowhere for me to sleep. Shittiest Christmas ever.
On Boxing Day, Mommi sent me to the cold cellar to check on our onion supply. The Beatnik was back. This time, though, she wasn’t vinyl but a skinny girl with long black hair and white lips, dragging on a cigarette.
“You look different,” I told her.
Beatnik Girl snapped her fingers. “Differenter than you know, Daddy-O. I’m in my sixties now, dragging around one of those oxygen tanks ‘cause of the emphysema. Blows my mind.”
“How come sometimes you’re a doll and sometimes you’re real?”
She turned to hork something yellow and blubbery into a carrot basket. “Don’t be square. The doll lived in this friggin house longer’n I did. That’s pretty ‘real’. Real as you. After I run off, my old lady used to sing to it. Put makeup on it. Broke its knees so it could kneel down and pray to those friggin saints. They shoulda stuck her in a friggin bughouse. At least yours is just a junkie.” Beatnik Girl lit another cigarette off the butt of the first one. “A presto, honey!”
I left her there, smoking a Virginia Slim on the potatoes.
One of the things that Mommi did in Bramborough was to join a book club. The members were called Richard, Linda, Susan, Janet, Doug, Ann and Barbara.
No one my age has names like the book club people. Not one. I’ve never met a Doug, Susan or Janet who wasn’t Mommi’s age.
They were all good people. I mean, they’d bring Mommi a bottle of Cab-Merlot, or a book that just got great reviews, or comp tickets for the Shaw Festival. They never brought her E, or expired Vicodin, or coke, or baggies of weed, as some of her social contacts in Toronto did. Which was why the Bramborough Book Club was fine by me.
This particular Sunday they were paying homage to Mommi by reading Ice by Duff Mackenzie; the book clubbers were impressed that she had been Duff’s inamorata, which is the sophisticated word for fuck buddy. Maybe that’s why she looked so pretty that day. We’d finally figured out how to make an updo with the Ponytailer™ she’d bought off an infomercial. I wanted her to do one on me but she said no.
I stood in the kitchen doorway, watching her prepare hot canapés. “Can I help?”
Mommi scraped salsa over a slice of asiago on a toast square. “Go downstairs, Courtney.” She sounded pissed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She banged the dripping spatula into the sink.
“Enough’s enough. Bridget told me you were a normal, healthy coping mechanism for Madison but she shouldn’t’ve run off to Calgary like that and left me to deal with her shit.”
“What?” I started to feel all thin and shivery and throw-uppy inside.
She slid a tray out of the oven and slammed it on top of the burners.
“Madison’s got friends now. Real ones, okay? And I’ve kicked Oxy. I don’t need you anymore either.”
Mommi turned her back and busied herself arranging bruschetta on an antique plate. When I didn’t move, she made a shooing motion with her hand.
“Scoot, now. Vamoose. Go wherever things like you go.”
No wonder the bus wouldn’t stop for me.
I drifted back to the book club until they started discussing Duff’s use of underground imagery. I wrote a paper about this in English class. Or maybe I helped Madison write it. I was no longer sure what happened to her and what happened to me.
I went to the cold cellar and leaned against the sacks of potatoes, hoping for someone to show up and keep me company. Madison, when she still played with me. Even poor dead Duff or the driveway saints.
I noticed the Beatnik doll, kneeling between two tomato jars. I thought it was moving until a mouse pushed its head through the turtleneck. Probably nesting inside the Beatnik’s tummy.
That’s what happens, right? Little things gobbling up one another. I could sense the slow dying of the fruits and vegetables around me. Even the preserves in their baths of Certo would decay, eventually.
I pressed my face against the freezing wall. I’d served my purpose. And when I didn’t appear again upstairs, I wouldn’t be missed at all.
Terri Favro is a Toronto copywriter, fiction writer and comic book collaborator. Her writing has appeared in Geist, Lies With Occasional Truth, Prism and other Canadian lit mags and sites. Her novella “The Proxy Bride” was published by Quattro Books and comic book “Bella” was published by Grey Borders Books, both in 2012. Terri spent a day with Milton Acorn in 1979 and has been dining out on it ever since. She blogs at terrifavro.ca