I’m having a time. Love. Dolly
Her Christian name being Dolores, her infant tongue could make nothing more explicit than Dodo. Dodo, she called herself, and then later, Dolly, and later still, there were other names. At home she was Lo. And she was both a doll and a haze during her teenaged years.
If you break down her original name you get Dol, a unit for measuring the intensity of pain. And oros— a mountain.
But first, she was Dodo, a trusting, extinguished bird.
Before she could read she examined the spikes of her father’s Remington keys, the shapes of alphabet letters set into teeth which she pressed against her fingers, comparing that imprint with the semi-circular impress on her wrist left by her baby brother Buster’s teeth. She thought her father’s typewriter was a mouth, a biting mouth and that he, her father, beat its buttons to frighten it into biting the paper.
She was paper caught between the Remington rollers and teeth of the world. Poor Dodo. Even then, she knew that unknown forces were typing her. Dodo! Consider the sound. Double dough. Formless, stretchy—a living billow that needs punching down. Or do do—middle C struck twice at the bottom of the scale. The notes never ascend to re. Neither could the bird—on what wings dare dodo aspire? The dodo’s vestigial wings flittered in rain puddles and threw shining drops across its back. The dodo shook those little wings to dry in drops of golden sun, innocent of their insufficiency. Me, it was a name she called herself. Phaugh, so.
Dodo had it coming.
Her mother pasted gilt corners into the black pages of a photograph album and slipped square snaps of Dodo into them. The captions were written in fine Catholic school copperplate, for hadn’t Charlotte Hayes been shipped off to a convent school when her own mother died, far too young? Dodo Hayes b.1935 Dodo’s snowy day, her beaky face peeping from under a cream colored hood. Dodo’s first steps, heavy bottomed, her drumstick thighs thrust sturdily out of frilled panties. Two years later, her baby brother Buster usurped the album, thrust her out of every golden corner, and the orphaned photos of Dodo, curled at the edges, were shoved between the leaves of her father’s ledgers and lost.
the raree show of manly imagination
Mauritius was an island, and islands are a childhood. Into the childhood of that island, men descended like birds. Their ships floated like birds on the blue canopy of the sea, sails folded like the wings of the brooding doves that are the dodo’s distant cousins. And from those ships the sailors hatched, unfledged and hungry. Ashore waited dodo—tall as a toddler, and as heavy; a world of eating on a dodo’s drum. Dodo was taken up bodily (lo, a fate not unlike Leda’s), lifted struggling into the air and swung by the feet. If dodo rolled gaze heavenward, to fix the sailors with a baleful eye or seek help from above, dodo was rewarded with a view of a firmament of dirty chin.
Of course, the sailors saved dodo’s skins and skeletons—and shared, or sold them; dodo left scientists and collectors a few taxonomic scraps on which to speculate (and for certain men, speculation is as close to grieving as they come), and later still yet more men obsessed over the vanished raphus cucullatus. Men took dodo’s head and feet and salted dodo’s soft tissues, made casts and sketches and then salted dodo away in catacombs beneath their natural history museums, salted dodo away among the heads and skulls of other victims of men’s prurience.
Writers gave dodo new names and wrote lyrical lies about dodo. Painters depicted dodo in peaceable kingdoms, and tinted dodo’s plumage not as it was in truth (if they even knew) but as it best suited their own compositions. Dodo has one hole for everything. Men compared dodo to swans, they ate dodo’s flesh and then scorned dodo’s flavor.
Two-year-old Dodo Hayes lives with her mother and father and soon she will have a blond baby brother Buster. Dodo has a baby carriage, a little sledge on runners with a perambulator’s hood. And she’s lying tucked into the sledge, really bundled in a tight swaddle of Hudson wool and wearing her rabbit skin hood. Her mother snapped her photo with a brownie camera. Dodo’s first toboggan ride. Dodo is bundled tight as a maggot into blankets, folded and tucked and pinned with her mother’s massive brass kilt pin, and shoehorned into the sledge. Her mother has dumped her own white skates onto Dodo’s lap. They are heavy, the blades heavy on the heavy blankets; Dodo can feel the weight of her mother’s skate blades, if not their edge. The laces make a dirty scrawl on the red and yellow stripe of the blanket.
The stroller’s runners whisk over the pavement, and scrape it in places skidding and slithering they are headed for the frozen lake. The road is a sheet of snow packed to smooth ganache. The trees are black and swallowed in glass. Her mother’s coat buttons are blackberries Dodo wants to suck. The bottom buttons no longer meet across her mother’s stomach, because her mother is going to have a baby very soon. Her boots crunch. Dodo can see her mother’s angora gloves gripping the handle of the stroller and watches the cigarette burning down between the fuzzy knuckles and upward are her mother’s cheeks damson with cold. Blasts of her steaming breath mix with the spiraling cigarette smoke. It hurts Dodo to breathe, the air is so cold, and also it is hard to breathe because the blankets are so heavy around her and so tight. Her eyelashes freeze. The cigarette falls into Dodo’s lap, but bundled as she is it doesn’t hurt, it simply singes the wool: perfect circle of burnt black. Her mother sweeps it, cherry and all, into the snow. She wears a cherry red comforter wrapped around her throat, long trailing ends falling into the carriage and tickling Dodo’s chin. She flicks it back and right before she breaks into a run she leans in and softly bites Dodo’s nose.
“Ready?” Dodo is treated to a close up of penciled black brows and threads of coppery hair clinging to lipsticked mouth, a sooty puff of breath. “Set! “ and then Dodo only sees the broad hard bubble of her mother’s stomach pressing against the handle of the sledge. “GO!” she breaks into a skimming dancer’s run, putting all her weight into pushing the sledge and it is flying. Dodo hears the call of skaters rebounding off the ice and the weight is lifted from her lap because her mother has lowered herself onto the snow at the lake’s edge and is struggling to reach over her own belly to lace up her skates. Pep, she calls these fits, she is feeling peppy. Her mother hauls herself to her feet, tottering, one hand supporting that belly, and pushes Dodo onto the ice. Chips of ice strike the bonnet of the stroller, clip Dodo’s face. The wind! Charlotte whipsaws the stroller in figure eights, she pants and spins, she shoves it so Dodo slides away from her and Charlotte lumbers to catch the handle before Dodo crashes into a bank. Charlotte drives the stroller straight into a flock of children. They scatter. Some fall. Their siblings pick them up and tow them swiftly to the edges of the pond where they circle, uneasily, poised to flee, fascinated by Dodo’s mother, huge-bellied and lurching, who skates so heavily and so heedlessly and with such ungainly skill. Dodo hears nothing but her mother’s ragged breaths and the creak of the ice like a reluctant door under her mother’s pregnant weight.
Charlotte’s skates skid and sail and loop the lake, mad dashing laps faster and faster and the wind tearing off bystander’s shouts like an impatient typist—you’ll crash—and crushing the cries into balls and littering the ice with them—watch out—get the baby—but Dodo’s mother crosses her skates neatly and now takes the sledge backward, pulling Dodo after her, laughing over her shoulder at the crowd that has gathered. Cheeks aflame, eyes snapping with pep and beautiful, Dodo’s mother throws off her tam, unwinds her scarf and lets it fall, unbuttons the topmost blackberries fastening her coat. The stroller sails away. Charlotte Hayes gives chase, unwinding her muffler also, the belly pulling her low to the ice. As a child she’d wanted to be Sonya Henje.
Dodo reels backward in her little sledge, helpless as a fish. If her hands were free she would clap them. Charlotte races to catch Dodo and catches a blade in the fallen comforter and trips. She falls hard and sprawls with the comforter spooling out from under her body like worsted blood.
The kilt pin binding all Dodo’s blankets springs loose and pricks her. Dodo leans out of the stroller and tumbles in a brace of blankets, which fail to break the bright impact of ice. Her mother rolls over on her back, not hurt after all, and laughs and laughs and all around them the ice groans with sidesplitting laughter.
A man, somebody’s father, crew-cutted and bolted into a gray overcoat, somebody’s father, maybe even Dodo’s, is not brave enough to skate out or heft Dodo in the blankets and heave her into a snow bank. It is an old woman, in her elastic-sided boots, leaning on an umbrella, who does this, and who shuffles out onto the ice and gets her hands under Dodo’s mother’s armpits and pushes her upright and off the ice. Dodo’s stroller goes down in a welter of black water. Even now, it lies at the bottom of that Midwestern lake.
As an older child, Dodo, Dolly now, will swim in a different lake, in a different state entirely. She will halfway believe that her stroller is at the bottom of every lake, of all lakes, and that when she swims over it, the hood opens in the current her legs make, opens and shuts itself up again like a clam.
her sobs in the night—every night, every night
That Frank Sinatra song, when I was 17 it was a very good year, turns out to be almost true for Dolly Schiller. Dolly Schiller, housewife and missus, pregnant at 17, finally achieves the age aspired to by her ten-year-old self. 17! Prime number! Prime of life! When she bought her first issue of Seventeen Magazine, back in the dark ages of 1945, she ardently believed its promise. It’s fun to be Seventeen! The magazine hinted that seventeen was so wonderful it had to be spelled out alphabetically.
To her ten-year-old nose the pages of the glossy rag exuded mysterious perfume—its slick fonts promised of cheerful glamour, while in the margins its advertisements rolled out titillating thunderheads which threatened the adolescent’s sunshine. Mum keeps you dainty even in tight wool sweaters! Even unfeminine behavior (lack of pep, crass language, poor posture, over-assertiveness, backwardness in offering to whip up a batch of fudge) had its antidotes, reasonably priced, available at any fine drugstore. (She tried all these damning tactics, sans remedies, later, in an attempt to repel Hhim. Nothing worked.) Catch a boy’s attention with a game of cat’s cradle!—and young Dolly imagines smearing Mum onto her armpits and then binding her hands in a cherry-loop of embroidery thread and flashing Kenny Knight a hosanna-bright Ipana grin. Weaving a web of crimson around his rough newsboy’s fingers. She was curious about sex and sparked with fleet intuitions. She learned to masturbate looking at old movie magazines filched from the dentist’s office. Dr. Ivor’s editions were at least ten years out of date. In Picture Play, Clark Gable spanked Claudette Colbert and Dolly felt herself tingle. Her other obsession, back then, had been dime novels, the shocking, salacious pulps that Kenny Knight filched from the back of his father’s john and traded her for bubblegum cards or, when she wasn’t in funds, a glimpse under her sweater. At ten, she had wanted to know what grown ups got up to. She had a virgin’s salaciousness. Stainless, shameless. Let’s be frank, she panted for it with curiosity and a guilty green itch. But later she wandered into the trap of her own pulp story (her fault, why did she ever think she loved Hhim? Why did she kiss Hhim? If, in fact, she did. One difficult thing is how difficult it is to remember what Hhe invented and what she remembers as true).
At ten, seventeen seemed an age away—an age where a girl could date, and pet, and marry, if she wanted. Later, bruised and torn, she yearned for the sanitary blandness of Seventeen. She devoured, vacantly, suggestions for how to be happy and wholesome. Circus parties, frolicsome bowling, roller rinks, and football games where holding hands under cover of a Hudson blanket on a cold afternoon might just make you want to faint. Her true life split and split again until she was hiding so many different Dollies that exhaustion drove her to the pages of the magazine, to the dream of Seventeen, an age when she would be restored and set free. Its models trooped up the steps to womanhood unblemished, wholesome without and within. Could she ever ascend that staircase, scrape off the mud of her childhood on the uppermost step? The magazine lisped hygienic lies, (or were they promises)—glimpses, perhaps, of what was possible for other girls, luckier girls, pluckier girls, unorphaned girls, cleaner girls, maybe Dolly herself, if ever she could find the right door.
Now she is Mrs. Richard F. Schiller. She is seventeen and all that is behind her, thank God. She is seventeen, the promised magical age when dreams come true. And true, now she has Dick (a real lamb) and his baby growing in her. At first she thought, when the rabbit died and the doctor told her she was with child, finally, I can get fat. But the doctor wouldn’t allow it. There have been times when seventeen feels like more of the same—one more old man policing her limbs, big hands with hairy knuckles probing her parts, “never mind the cold stethoscope, your back will soon warm it my dear,” parting her legs and poking around and weighing and measuring her (the tour of your thigh, you know, must not exceed seventeen and a half inches.) She was actually grateful when Dick lost his job and they were so broke she couldn’t see the obstetrician anymore. Better to sit on her porch with grey Betty whose son works in the mines, and the dog, which Dolly feeds and lets grow fat. Dolly and Betty smoke roll-ups and laze and Betty speculates about the sex of the baby. Betty, the color of a dead cigarette, has a hacking cough and home cures for everything. It was Betty who advised her on a way to lose the baby—“just you shake up a bottle of Coca-Cola and stick it up inside you. Let the bubbles clean you out. Works on sinks, too.”
But a Coca-Cola douche failed to do anything but give her another case of the wicked itch of the west, the deep soreness of a yeast infection, a terrible old enemy who had mostly cleared out now that HHe wasn’t after her all the time; HHe had not cared, had never cared that her parts were red, seared, and itched her to madness, did not even note the white curds on the crotch of her underpants, paid no heed to the way the eye at the center of her being wept steadily all those years—her sobs in the night—every night, every night.
(Seventeen Magazine said scratching was unfeminine and you certainly couldn’t scratch your crotch at Beardsley, and if she scratched in front of HHim, HHe thought she was going after herself which meant she was after HHim, and HHe came after her and never let up. So the itch never let up, never healed, the flesh deep up inside her burned when she sat too long or peed. There was nothing HHe could do to her or make her do to HHim that hurt worse or bothered her more than that itch.)
Now she is past all that, miraculously, and as cameo pink and clean as a polished conch. Dick never touches her now that the baby is growing. So she is happy and as self sufficient as a house.
Seventeen. Her belly announces what she’s been up to. After all those years of concealing what she’d been coerced to do, finally, there’s no hiding. Women approach her belly with motherly concern and men steer clear.
She likes being pregnant, undisguised. She likes Dick all right, too, he is restful and like many near-deaf people he is letting the effort to hear and be heard lapse. Her throat, when they first met, grew raw from all the shouting. But now a smile suffices him. New drafting pencils. A hamburger served with a peck on the cheek. And Dick has made, as the romance magazines say, “an honest woman” out of her. If she could hide behind this baby always!
It is Halloween. Dolly Schiller fashions flapping tarpaper bats from roof batting. Considers submitting the trick of it to Good Housekeeping. But those readers likely keep their shelves dainty with patterned shelf paper, and lay down oilcloths in their eat-in breakfast nooks, and wouldn’t know tarpaper if it rasped them. Inside her the baby skips rope. Turns somersaults, flips the way she herself long ago flipped around the monkey bars on one hooked knee.
Such a dreamy babe, a happy wanderer, skylarking. Back in August her insides really did feel like a big sky swept by skylarks, the baby’s movements a darting and soaring inside her. Inside her, the baby skips rope and if it turns out to be a girl she, Dolly, will kill anyone who interferes with it. She casts about her domestic implements for the deadliest. Butcher knives. Iron skillets. Brain him with the percolator, in a pinch. Why had she never fought HHim off? Aw, hell, she only weighed 84 pounds back then. And if the baby is a boy? Perish the thought. She still thinks it is her fault. She tempted him. She will probably always think this. How many years will she have to crawl through before she can stop revisiting the whys and ifs?
It is almost Thanksgiving. Inside her the baby throws jacks, a metallic scatter and litter, a scrape and scoop, and Dolly’s panties spot. Betty tells her to lie around with her feet up and read magazines, so it is back on her back and back to her stacks of Seventeens, but they bore her. She spends an entire afternoon blacking all the models’ teeth.
Shaved pearl snow drifts down in December. Dick scrapes the walk. Dick decks the halls and trims the tree. Inside her the baby is wedged tight, stuck in her chimney and pressing on her sciatic nerve. She can hardly walk. The babe’s wedged at a funny angle high up under her right rib. It’s hard to breathe. She pushes down on the baby, hard, but it won’t budge. She lets Betty feel the lump. “That there’s his tushie,” Betty tells Dolly, “but he needs to move down or he won’t get through.”
Dolly is in too much pain to be terrified. He’s splitting her side and his head isn’t in the right place and they both could die, it’s true, babies die and even mothers sometimes. She should know.
She hasn’t thought of her mother since 1950. When that nine turned over to zero she put Charlotte out of her mind. But now, carrying a little stranger inside, she can’t thrust her mother away. She reaches for her. And Charlotte comes, not the rigid, bitter woman constantly on her case, not the aging goon whose flesh and perfume revolted Lo (her fastidious eleven-year-old self—and beside her mother Lo had felt a flash of triumph comparing her own cat-golden limbs, no spare flesh anywhere on her colt’s frame, and HHe had liked her best—to her mother’s softening neck with its curious pills of skin). Not her mother from then, but her old mother, her mother of old who was still young, and so very pregnant with Buster.
Dolly’s hand burnishes her belly, presses the lump, and reassures the slumbering child in its tiger-striped drum, I’ll never leave you. She soothes her fear by making soothsayer passes over the ball of baby, and conjures up the past. That universal gesture—her own mother stroked her Buster-belly so. Dodo laid her cheek along the hot tight drum that rose beneath her mother’s starched pink maternity smock and allowed her mother to scratch her scalp. One of her mother’s hands stroked Dodo and the other rubbed the baby. Scritch scritch said Dodo’s scalp and shift shift said the starched smock. To this day Dolly can be soothed to purring by somebody scratching her scalp (something HHe never bothered to find out. Thank god she still has a place on her body that gives her pleasure—HHe exhausted the usual hollows and holes).
Dodo presses her ear to her mother’s belly and tries to hear the heartbeat of the baby. Her mother’s red nails with their moon manicure stir Dodo’s hair, and the only other sound in the house is the furnace roaring to life and the occasional rattle of her father shifting the pages of his evening paper.
Dodo chose duckies for her baby brother Buster’s nursery; her mother read some book that said Dodo wouldn’t be jealous of the baby if they let her pick, and so she chose duckies, funnier than lambs and less mawkish and cruel than characters out of Mother Goose. Dolly recognizes with a shock that she has resurrected Buster’s duckies in the cheap frieze she’s pasted in the bed-parlor corner where her baby’s bassinet will be.
What is there to say, really, about a baby as an individual? Aren’t they essentially as blank and alike as eggs in a carton? But no, remembering Buster, his essential Busterness was right there from the first, in the way he moved his head, in his candid slatey eyes. A celestial (vestigial?) sweetness in his look and gestures. He rooted humbly, almost apologetically, for their mother’s breast, but then latched with such vigor and concentration he made their mother gasp and blush. The turn of his head, wobbling on its neck, and his steady gaze brought Dodo into focus, even the conjuring figures he made with his hands as he lay flat on his back in a little Moses basket (while mother pegged up the clothes, and Dodo played with a clothespin doll and a dandelion) expressed a beguiling gentleness.
He smiled at Dodo when he was just a week old. Not possible, her mother said, it’s just wind. But Dodo was there and no wind was blowing. That gape was all for her, and filled with recognition. Brother. Sister.
“I love you,” said Dodo, and Buster smiled.
The quality of his Busterness was a kind of deliberate peace. He was placid without being dull. He laughed frequently, was animated but not restless, determined, but graceful in concession. He walked early, talked late. Out of sheer good nature he did whatever Dodo demanded. Everyone loved him. His spherical head, his mismatched ears, the rosy flush he took on when feeding, his endless willingness to be delighted. Dodo knew not all babies were as perfect as Buster because her mother told her so. Buster never cries—not like you, Dodo, I had to walk the floor at all hours with you, you kept me so tired I started losing my hair. Nothing satisfied you, you were cross and colicky and too good for everything. Turned up your nose. Spit my milk right up. Batted my hands away. Refused the breast, the bottle. You were so contrary we thought you’d put us in our graves.
Buster slept through the night from the beginning. Buster never threw toys from his crib for spite. Buster didn’t dash into the street or imitate his father smoking in the car by putting a dashboard lighter to his lips and burning a perfect circle there and having to be rushed to the emergency room on Easter morning, of all the times. Oh, Buster was going to be one of those who just smiled through life. Buster had dignity, too. He never bridled or played up to all the chin-chucks and kitschy-coos his blondness inspired. He wasn’t promiscuous, not like you, Dodo, who will sit on anyone’s knee and shake your curls and wiggle your rump, not like you who will dance a hornpipe for any old goat in hornrims with a pipe clamped between his teeth. Buster, sunflower that he was, yellow and round and open, would have done well for himself. He was a people person, winning friends wherever he went, even that early, when he was only two years old, you could tell.
Blonde baby Buster who mother loved best because “he is a boy and boys belong to their mothers.” His mother may love him best but two-year-old Buster loves Dodo. In an excess of love Buster pushes Dodo to the ground and he marks Dodo as his own. A ring of teethmarks in her fat little arm. Dodo loves Buster too, in spite of (because he?) bites.
When Dodo is four and Buster two, their father insisted they go to the doctor, to the moon station, to get moon eyes. “My best chum died of German measles,” he said, “for God’s sake, Lottie, take them to be immunized.”
When their mother took them together to get the moon stations Dodo set her teeth and squeezed her eyes and let the titer poke her and even loved the raised figure eight left by the moon station, but Buster trembled in fear to see the silver spike disappear into Dodo’s arm and the red smoke rise in the plunger. When his turn came, Charlotte and two nurses had to hold him down. Dodo held his foot, gripped the tender toes clenched in the little white sock. He thrashed so hard the sock came off in her hand. The next winter her mother found it in Dodo’s coat pocket and kept it for herself.
During the shot Buster shrieked himself into such a tremble and sweat that Charlotte faltered. Pale and in tears herself, she begged them to stop torturing her baby.
“I’m just limp, I declare,” she said. “This harrows my soul.”
The doctor told Charlotte the children needed to get boosters for the moon eyes to work, so come back two more times. But the next time Buster cried so hard that he bit Charlotte, not a gentle bite like he gave Dodo but a deep bite that drew red. So Charlotte gave in. Dodo could have as many boosters as you please, she was tough as a witch, but Buster was too little. One was plenty. He was so good, and cooperative, in every other way, it would be downright wicked to torment him. Dodo got boostered and her moon eyes protected her. But Buster hated shots, so Buster did not get any boosters, and 4 months later he died of diphtheria in a duckling painted nursery in Pisky.
the absence of her voice from that concord
Four-year-old Dodo sits on her father’s lap while he drives the big DeSoto home from Buster’s funeral. She watches all the nines turn over to zeroes, and she thinks if Harold Hayes just reverses the car and drives backward long enough, the miles will vanish, the nines return, time itself will run backward and distances will be respooled and whatever is past them will lie ahead once again, fresh and untrammeled, though Dodo is too little to articulate this.
When did Dodo first gain a sense of time? Was it the long hours locked out of their nursery, while Buster whooped under quarantine quilts? He’d needed boosters (like on a rocket, Doll Haze reflected later, if only Buster had had boosters, he might have lifted off, escaped the terrible gravity that first pulled him to earth, and then shoved him under it), Buster and his “more”. It was how he asked for things—“more song, Dodo,” “more truck, Dodo”—as though Dodo were the source from which all things originated. “More, more,” he pleaded, and Dodo couldn’t make him understand that he had to wait for things to arrive, that the great thrilling trucks and airplanes were subject to schedules and patterns she could barely imagine herself, much less explain. “More,” he cried. Is he still calling for it, wherever he is?
Nothing brings back Buster. Dodo bites herself, making tooth mark wreaths on her forearms, but Buster is gone for good.
When Buster dies, her mother stops bothering to pretend she loves Dodo.
Without Buster her father loved her too much. Those next six years in Pisky, without Buster, Dodo spent dodging her father, dodging boys. She hacked the ribbons off the lovingly braided heads of goody-goodies, spent days by the schoolside creek playing hooky and noodling for tadpoles. Buster was an angel, her mother insisted. And Dodo was the devil incarnate. He sees what you’re doing and he’s very sad. The duckies in his nursery were quacking seraphs guarding his shrine. The little white sock crumpled in her pocket. A half-moon of his baby curl in a velvet ring box.
Harold Hayes lived six years beyond the death of his son and heir, but when Dodo was nine going on ten he gassed up the DeSoto with himself in it. Dodo, bicycling homeward with Blackjack gum and Seventeen Magazine in her little rattan basket, pulled up behind an ambulance and her first thought was Buster! But then she remembered Buster’s ambulance was long ago, 3 of his lifetimes ago. Her mother stood on the stoop with the rose-patterned kerchief, which she normally wore in her hair when a dusting fit came on, pressed to her mouth instead, and Dodo guessed her father was dead.
More than ever, after Buster died, she became the type of child other children wanted to handle and hurt—her wide eyed softness invited playschool bites. Young Dodo was pinched and squeezed, tested for softness, like a peach. Dodo’s skin was an MS and Morse code of pinches, a calligraphy of scratches. Why are some children marked? Was it her name? Dodo guesses the sound the extinct birds made was a pigeon-like submissive boop boop boop, the kind of sound her two-year-old brother Buster used to make, singing to himself. Boop boop boop. The sound of contentment and helplessness. Pecking the ground, wandering off among the rocks, ditty bopping through thickets, aimless and slow, their peach basket bodies bounding on heavy thighs, with that candy-tuft tail, dabbling in the orris of surf that stitches the shore.
They moved East. Dodo became Lo. Lo. Lo and behold. Lo, I bring you great tidings. And lo, a light was gone from the world. Low ebb. Lololololo, the ululation of grieving women, of widows and orphans. The fatherless and brotherless. Laid low. Lo in alone. In the dictionary—after loving comes low. Low—a grave mound. Low—a flame or a light. Low—to burn with passion. She became Lo, and Lo, as you know, was the most unfortunate of all her names.
What are we to do with the claim that she seduced him? What are we to make of other recorded facts? That she was not a virgin when he raped her? That she fucked a boy in the woods to win a bet with her friend Barbara? What relevance does it have on this matter? Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction did not bring it back.
Why on earth had she kissed him? Never mind that she was drugged, never mind that she had no one left on earth who loved her, that she was grieving, that she was twelve. Never mind. She kissed him. Which indicated her permission for all the rest. Didn’t it?
The greatest love story of the 20th century, critics call it.
aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic, obstinate
The reasons Lo read those dumb magazines all the time, 1948, year without end, are the reasons anyone reads dumb magazines in the doctor’s reception room or awaiting the dentist’s chair—to stem the dread. When the spirit knows it cannot flee, has no choice but to undergo the drill, the suction, the prodding of the tongue depressor or plunge of the needle—and endure those euphemisms of abuse.
“Close your eyes you’ll just feel a little pinch.”
Archie’s Digest whiles away the long hours between pokes Lo cannot prevent, “just relax, open wide, wider now, aaaaaahhh, why are you crying, it doesn’t hurt, stop making such a fuss, it doesn’t hurt.” Betty and Veronica’s romantic duels provide distraction without danger. The bright-colored boredom of them, Lo adores it. The hashmarks on Archie’s red hair, like he’s been burgered on a grill, Jughead’s broken crown, even rotten Reggie, who Lo loves the best for his transparent and pathetic self-love. Those cockamamie kids! What else is there to do in a waiting room but read beforehand—and after it is all over, with the pain and the drooling and the numbness and the aching jaw, what else is there to do but accept the candy that he hands to you, resign and unwrap and suck every last lick of consolation from the bright red insult of a lollipop?
Before Lo knew better she had wanted to be beautiful, to be desirable. But HHe had discovered and desired her beauty, despoiled it, and now she just wants to be a grandmother like grey Betty—a crone. Old women were safe.
“Old women practically became men!” Betty said. “You retain the mind of a woman but have all the advantages, practically, of being a man. I do not miss my biology, no ma’am.”
Dolly wanted children, a husband, a family (god knows), but above all she wanted to be old, old, old, a noble ruin sunning itself among roman lilies and swallowtail butterflies. To be old, and dreadful, and disinterested. HHe read Lo Alice in Wonderland, which she despised, and inwardly thought Alice should have had a cake and bottle that aged her. No one cares for the shrinking or growing except where time is concerned.
Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.
The cruelest part is its introduction. Did you realize he killed her off? I didn’t. Who reads an introduction? But it is true. Right away, without ceremony, he undoes her. He anticipates any attempts on the part of her readers to help her, to free her, to resist the text by imagining her beyond its borders, by allowing her, perhaps, an adulthood. He withholds this—the great gift of any fiction—the margin beyond which characters may persist. Before we ever meet her, he nails her down in her coffin. The book is her tomb—she’s walled up in it. He knew what he was doing; he was no fool. He bricks her up with offhanded casualness in the masonry of the book. The only life she is allowed is the life he gives her. Dolly Hayes tries and tries to break through, she is a scintilla in the book, a bright rebellious flicker in the margins. But he is so tightfisted, so malicious—that he will not allow her to draw a single breath in another person’s imagination, let alone her own. I could almost forgive him, I could almost believe those moments when his narrator’s conscience pricks—his beautiful ironies of perspective; in the mournful and sharp fragments of her truth which he allows to break through—if he had only let her to live.
Mrs. Richard F. Schiller dies on a table in Gray Star, a northern settlement on Christmas Day. Humbug-Humbug! The miserliness of it!
Dolly Schiller went into labor two days before Christmas. Bare feet pacing, slap slapping the living room floor. Betty told her to hold off going to the hospital for as long as possible. At the hospital they force you to lie down. They put you to sleep. Dolly would like to sleep. But it hurts to lie down.
I have gone through much sadness and hardship.
Contractions wring her like a string mop and she sheds grey water—sweat, urine, who cares—and she lows like the Lo she once was. Betty comes. Betty disappears, Dolly is outside of time in this private narthex of pain.
At the hospital they put her under. Unzip her from stem to stern. They pull out her daughter, who has passed through distress and into death. It happens, so terribly sorry, Mr. Schiller, but they’re both gone. Dead on December 25th on a table in Gray Star at the age of 17. An inverted Christmas!
Ah, ah, ah said the little door.
She felt a door opening in her pelvis and after much sadness and hardship the baby slithered out. Under the auspices of her grossly miscalculated dose of anesthesia, Dolly Schiller’s heart stopped. Dolores rose above her body and saw it for what it was—a doll, an utter doll. Her body was just a plaything after all. The freckles on the doll’s nose had been painted imperfectly, and the little glass eyes were rolled shut behind the hard plastic lids with their wet bristle of lashes.
Her pink eyeglasses had been lost, but doll accessories are so easily lost (a sock, a little white sock). But now the doctors tucked the doll carefully under a new sheet, exactly but exactly as she’d tucked various playthings up in her little doll bed. Hovering there above her doll’s body Dolores felt stabbed by grief—if she was a doll, whose hand had moved her? Trotted her too and fro, mashed her against other dolls, bent her limbs in absent-minded torture, forgotten her, so frequently, mislaid her for weeks, years, days? Dolores saw that the doctors were dolls too, speaking in the deep-voiced fakery of children trying to sound like men, trotting around her doll’s body, writing nonsense on clipboards, having quite a tea party, in fact.
But nothing can make Dolores die—if death means hold still, if death means that which settles you, that which chloroforms you and pins you like a butterfly to a bit of paper—my little Lo-lepidoptera has more metamorphoses for you. Go ahead. Keep writing Dolores into HHis bed, into her grave. Mock her, love her, murder her, knock her down or knock her up. Lie about her. Dolores will not die. You can’t fix our Dolores with death. You can’t prevent her escape. So play your games. Turn her rape into an origami shape a reader can fold and refold obsessively, or make of her tale a Mobius strip, where Dolores is on both sides and neither. Go on, wax acrobatic, let people peep through the cracks in your voice and play out your end game.
We, her daughters, her granddaughters, her sisters and aunts, we will send Dolores back into the alphabet. She will not die. Unpack her name. Put it through its paces like Proteus. Dolores will find a door, she will always find a door. It is hidden—did you not see it—it is hidden in her name.
Amy Eleanor Parker is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, Five Chapters, At Length, Los Angeles Review Print Quarterly, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship in fiction and a Meta-Rosenberg fellowship in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book, Beasts and Children, described by Kirkus Reviews as “riveting” and by Booklist as “an electrifying, daring, and magical debut collection,” is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2016. She can be found at http://www.amyparker.