I slid my Toys in the Attic CD into my dusty boom box. I’d never made a doll to Toys in the Attic. I was looking forward to seeing what would come of it.
Most of the day, I’d been hunkered down in my cozy sewing room cutting black and white cotton for the arms of a new dolly. Stacked just so on shelves all around me were dozens of rag dolls. Stevie Sinatra, the one with the brown cotton hair, was Gram’s favorite. I almost giggled out loud when I heard Grams snore from her recliner in the living room. She was supposed to be watching His Girl Friday, but she was doing more dozing than watching. Grams called it “sleep watching.”
There had been a surprise cloudburst this afternoon. I figured all that rain had brought the work of harvest crews around the county to a halt for the day. The air, heavy as a bucket of fresh mud, now was threatening a hailstorm.
“Voices scream. Nothing’s seen. Real’s a dream.” I mouthed the words, pulled the sewing box from its cubby, lifted the lid and chose the red thread. I was going to take my time with this one. Wanted him to be just who he wanted to be. Not press my own will on him.
I got the hair picked out, a nice soft black. Found a piece of transfer paper for the face, and folded it neatly into my back pocket. It would be time soon. I propped him up on the overstuffed chair and swapped my Yoshi slippers for scuffed flip-flops. Banging through the back screen door, I was still humming “Toys, toys, toys,” when a rusted Monte Carlo slowed to a stop on the gravel road.
“Hey there, girl.” Leanne rolled down her car window and smiled her sleepy half-smile. “Get your ass in the car. I’m fixin’ to get a beer and I’ll look like a slut if I stop at the Playmor all by myself.” Leanne worked at the Kwicki-Mart on Highway 18 and Main, but she had been helping with a harvest crew for the past week. Her dark brown hair was pulled into pigtails, and she had a deep tan from her days in the fields.
If I made girl dollies, I’d for sure make one who looked like Leanne. But why should I? I’d always have the real Leanne. We’d been friends since we took naps side by side on our kindergarten mats. It was Leanne who helped me sew red yarn hair back on Raggedy Andy, after Nick and Bobby set fire to the top of his head behind the grade school.
“So if I tag along, you’ll look like less of a slut?” I laughed, wrinkling my nose. “What am I, some sort of an anti-slut talisman?”
“Just get in, Mel, for Christ’s sake. It’s party time. Our crew has the night off ‘cuz of the rain. There should be a few new faces around the pool hall.”
I stuck my head back inside the house and yelled for Grams. Told her I was heading to the pool hall for a beer and would be home around 11. Grams nodded, eyes forward toward the celluloid screen. I checked my reflection in the hallway mirror. Dark circles under my eyes. No color to my cheeks. But my lips were pouty and sexy…. ish. I pulled my hair back into a pink scrunchie and made a kissy mouth. Would have been nice to have bigger tits to fill out my tie-dyed T-shirt, but what the hell? I figured the tie-dye gave the illusion of tits. Grams leaned back into her brown tweed recliner.
More than a dozen folks lined the bar at the pool hall when Leanne and I banged through the bent screen door. I recognized a couple of faces, but the majority were custom cutters, ‘wheat whackers’ who would be off work, probably for the next day or so, until the fields dried out.
Leanne crushed her cigarette butt into an ashtray at the bar, and I ordered two Miller Lights.
“I’ve got these, Leanne,” I said, shoving a five-dollar bill across the bar, trying to be heard above Born to be Wild on the jukebox. I had sold a couple of dolls last week. That, together with my part time job as a nurse’s aide, gave me a few extra dollars for beers.
I couldn’t count the nights I’d spent at that bar, just shootin’ the shit and waiting for something new to happen. Almost all the local boys were gone now and we didn’t see many fresh faces. Sometimes, in a small town, you feel like a stuck window. Like everyone else just passes through, all breezy, without a care, and you keep rattling around, half-crazy, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
“Uh uh, Ma’am. I got those.” The tall guy at the bar looked to be about twenty-five. He wore a ‘DeKalb University’ hat and a white T-shirt that had a couple of dirty spots. His smile veered just a little to the left, and his thin mustache made him look a bit like Clark Gable. In Levis.
He was almost too good to be true. I gave Leanne a sideways glance and she raised her eyebrows.
“I got this already, mister,” I said.
“Well, then, I’ll get the next ones, darlin’” he said, with a bit of a Texas drawl. “I’ve been hanging out with these dirty harvesters for the last month, and I wouldn’t mind spending time with someone who doesn’t stink of diesel.”
“Sorry to say, I smell more like biofuel.” I pulled my T-shirt up and inhaled deep, then straddled a barstool next to Leanne.
“Biofuel,” he laughed. “What are you some sort of commie liberal?”
Could he be more perfect? More Redneck? I had to touch him to see if he was real.
“Yeah, that’s it. I soaked my shirt in biofuel and climbed a wind turbine to dry it out,” I sneered. “So, aren’t you going to tell us your name?” I poked my finger into his chest. Yes, just the right mix of ribs and sinew.
“Morgan,” he said. “Morgan Kerr.”
“I’m Mel. She’s Leanne.” I chugged my Miller Lite. “I’m ready for that beer now, Morgan.”
We took our beers and moved to a booth back by the pool tables.
“What do you do for fun around this nothing town?” Morgan asked, peeling the label from his bottle of Bud.
“I’m never bored.” I looked at Leanne. “Are you, hon? Usually have to work two jobs just to pay bills. When I’m not sewing dollies, I’m drinking beer or helping out at the local meth lab. Arts and science in the city. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Leanne and I tried not to laugh, but did anyway. When it got quiet again, Leanne tilted her chin toward Morgan and then squinted at me.
“You know, we used to get a lot more interesting guys around here, back when we were teenagers… back when migrants hoed the sugar beets every summer. Remember that, Mel?”
“Oh, for sure. Harvest used to be a lot more fun, too,” I said. “Before custom-cutters got all corporate America with their big-assed combines and semi-trucks. That drastically cut into the supply of cute, sweaty guys.”
“Nothing wrong with you, though,” I looked at Morgan. “Stand up and turn around once, why don’t you?”
He turned around and did an awkward white boy ass shake. I looked at Leanne and we giggled again.
I liked his moustache, for sure. Something straight out of an old movie. It made me think of all the nights I had spent watching black and white shows with Grams when I was growing up. The years right after Pop disappeared and the white coat guys came for Mom. Grams and I would hunker down in front of the 12-inch screen and watch a classic, something like Casablanca or maybe even Psycho.
I loved those old guys from the movies. How their feet never seemed to touch the ground. Their faces so smooth, so touchable. They always knew just what to say.
Grams would make me a sandwich out of marked-down bologna, thick with globs of mayo, and let me eat it in front of the TV instead of the kitchen table. I would line my dollies up on the sofa so they could watch the movies, too. Sometimes I’d teach the dollies dance moves while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“We should definitely show this DeKalb University boy some of the city sites. Don’t you think, Leanne?”
“Hmmm…. might as well. Hold up, I’ll grab a six-pack.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Morgan slammed his beer down on the table. “Where are my keys?”
We climbed up into Morgan’s truck, me in the center and Leanne on the passenger’s side. I pointed out a dark road that headed west off Main Street. He reached under the seat and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels. After a long swig, he offered it to me.
“No one should leave this metropolis without first seeing our number one tourist trap” I said, after a drink of Jack. “About a quarter mile from here is the teenager’s favorite party spot, Raggedy Ridge.
Straight ahead, I could see the harvest moon, peeking out from behind fingers of clouds.
“What do you think of Morgan’s face, Leanne?”
“I think I like it just fine. I think lots of folks would like it. I think even better than that last guy. What’s his name? Stevie?”
Morgan was searching for a radio station, up and down the dial. He settled on country. Because, that’s all there is out here. Unless you’re looking for a Jesus station.
“Yeah, Stevie. Morgan, you’re gonna like Stevie,” I said. “At least I hope so. Every one of my dollies get socialized, you know. Watches old movies, listens to music. Hard rock makes the best dolls. Country makes shit dolls.”
Morgan looked up from the radio. I’m not sure he was listening to me. He just looked kind of blank.
“Here it is.” I pointed to a narrow lane framed by scraggly shrubbery. “Just a hundred yards ahead.”
In the truck lights, straight ahead was a rough line of sagebrush. Morgan slowed to a stop and cut the engine.
I moved closer to him and touched his thin moustache. “Fuckin’ Clark Gable. That’s who you look like.”
What were the chances a wheat whacker would have Gable’s face? I moved closer to his shoulder and breathed deeply. It was the cotton/sweat mix that I was hoping for.
“Who the hell is Clark Gable?”
“Come on now, ‘frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn?’ Don’t tell me you never saw Gone with the Wind?”
“Christ, why would I?”
I was getting a little angry now. Why the hell wouldn’t a real Redneck know about Gone with the Wind?
“It’s a classic, you moron. It’s my Grams’ all-time favorite.” I elbowed him in the ribs, and then looked out of the windshield. “God, that moon. Amazing isn’t it? Come on Clark baby, let’s check it out.”
Leanne had already gotten out of the truck, so I followed, stepping onto the slick black earth. Under the bright moon, I found my way to a patch of wild sunflowers. I used to be afraid of this place, when the high school boys first brought me here. But it was so quiet here now. So many mounds of dirt. So many wildflowers.
“This is the place, Mr. Gable,” I laughed. “Just like Tara. Only dirty and cheap.”
I pulled the special flask from my crocheted purse, and handed it to him.
“Drink up, doll face,” Leanne said striking a match and lighting her Swisher Sweet. She leaned against a tree and inhaled, blowing a smoke ring, nice and slow.
Morgan took a swig from the bottle and stumbled on a big rock. I pushed him to the ground and then sat astride him. He seemed to think this was a good thing, and I was glad for another look at his crooked smile.
“How old are you, Clark?” I asked, pulling the piece of transfer paper from my jeans’ pocket. “I mean Morgan. Damn, sorry.”
“Twenty-three,” he said.
“Imagine, being twenty-three years old when you’re born again. Sweet Jesus, Grams is gonna love you.”
Morgan never showed up for his crew the next morning. No one remembered who he left the Playmor with that Friday night. Leanne never said.
They found his truck parked on Raggedy Ridge.
Back in my sewing room, surrounded by rows of rag dolls, I think of all the good times the dollies and me have had. There is Juan Bogart with a crocheted cigarette hitch-stitched to his lip, Julio Brando with dreamy waves of deep brown hair.
Oh sure, I have my favorites, like Nick Perkins and Bobby Grant. I try not to worry, though, that fewer and fewer new faces show up in this nothing town each year.
But this evening, I smile as I grab my latest dolly from the top shelf and join Grams in the living room. Tonight we’ll watch Gone with the Wind. I pat Gram’s white cotton curls and snuggle close to her. She stares straight ahead with her little button eyes, even when I introduce her to Morgan Gable, fresh from the sewing box. He just smiles a slightly crooked smile and tips his DeKalb University cap.
BIO: Dawne Leiker is a former journalist, now working in academia. Her news/feature stories, fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published in The Broadkill Review, Heartland!150 Kansas Poems, The Hays Daily News, Coffin Bell, Kansas Voices, Mirrors, and other publications. Ms. Leiker’s home is in western Kansas.