Having been sent to get a birthday present, one under twenty dollars, he loops the unfamiliar aisles more and more slowly until finally he just grinds to a stop in front of a shelf of Barbies dressed like doctors. Her exact specialty isn’t clear. She’s probably something like a radiologist or ophthalmologist, so she doesn’t actually have to put her hands in the messy parts of the body. Plus there’s no need for a Proctologist Barbie or urologist or gynecologist, when any potential patient just has a slick plastic curve for a crotch. He scans the shelves and realizes Dr. Barbie comes after Princess Barbie, Rockstar Barbie, and Chef Barbie, but before Racecar Driver Barbie, Lifeguard Barbie, and Computer Software Engineer Barbie. Each one has a job. A good one. No Bartender Barbie. Waitress Barbie. Hotel Maid Barbie. No Recently Fired Barbie.
How does she do it? How does she get these jobs? What credentials does she have? By now her resume must be ten pages long. She gets hired again and again. Without re-training. Without ever having a counselor spending a mandatory fifteen minutes with her, explaining unemployment benefits, and suggesting this might be an opportunity to think outside the box. Only her breasts have ever been downsized. Maybe the unemployment rate is so high because Barbie has all the fucking jobs. It’s not fair, and something needs to be done about it. Just once she needs to be the one terminated, so he reaches for the gun he’s been carrying around lately, ever since his own meeting, because that’s how a story like his goes, and he knows once he takes it out there are only a couple of endings. He’ll fire at Barbie after Barbie until the bullets run out, and he’ll become a joke on Leno and Letterman–the fat middle-aged laid-off executive responsible for the Barbie Massacre–or he’ll turn the gun on himself.
Except the pocket is empty.
He begins mechanically patting the other ones as if searching for his keys, and he keeps doing it even after he realizes his wife must have stripped him of it as he left, tidying him with the same deft skill that she uses to wipe their children’s faces as they go out the door.
By the time a staff member comes along and asks, “Can I help you?” he has wound down to the point that he only can make spasmodic half-gestures towards the towering wall of perky breasts and corporate smiles. “Barbie,” he manages to say, “Barbie. Boxed in.”
“Of course,” the assistant says, sliding a white coated doll from the shelf, “I’ll take it up front for you, and just let me know if I can help with anything else.”
Into the Black
He’d had a headache ever since he had discovered the body. She had been blocking the door although he could push in far enough to see she was lying face-down, which is what had saved her. Unlike Hendrix or Bonham.
He had come over because she wasn’t answering the phone which was never a good sign. He had been expecting something like this, so he wasn’t surprised to find her on the floor, but he didn’t know if she was trying to lock the door to keep him from getting in or had changed her mind and was trying to get outside. She didn’t know either. When she regained consciousness in the hospital, she didn’t remember anything. Or, at least claimed not to. He never knew what she knew and what she didn’t. He had given up long ago trying to separate what was her personality and what was the disease.
The doctor had suggested it might be best if he didn’t tell her how she ended up locked in the Psych Ward for evaluation, but finally the crying and insults and screamed questions–Why can’t I go home? Why are you doing this to me? Why are you keeping me here?–got to him. He had snapped, Because you tried to kill yourself. Again. Then she had become still. Why? she asked, but this time quietly in a tone of genuine curiosity. I don’t know, he said. She had turned away, looking out the shatter-proof window, and then suggested, I must have been sad. For a moment, he had felt for her, and then she added, It was probably something you did.
The headache made it difficult to clean. He already had taken a handful of aspirin even though he knew they wouldn’t help. They never did, but he didn’t want to go back to the other pills. And those dreams. And those thoughts. Maybe this one would go away when he had the house taken care of. Or when she died. Whatever the case, the best thing would be to clear it out as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about saving or salvaging or selling anything. Empty it, then hose down the rooms, see if something could be done about the vomit stains on the carpet, and give it to a realtor to unload.
It’s not like there was anything of value. In 70 years, she hadn’t seemed to have been able to hold on to anything. He didn’t know what had happened to the old oak dining room table. Or the bedroom set. Or the cherry wood desk that Danny had scratched his initials into and then tried to blame him: “It was Steve! He did my initials to get me in trouble!” They laughed about that every couple of years when they managed to get together.
He didn’t recognize anything in these rooms. Not the cheap furniture. Not the trinkets on the shelves–the cobalt blue vases, the ceramic angels–and not the people in the photos. He didn’t expect any of himself, but he was surprised that there wasn’t a single one of Danny’s family. Danny sent everyone school photos of his three children every Christmas. He had a folder full of them somewhere.
Danny couldn’t come to help. Danny never could, but this time it was just as well because he would have tried to be discriminating. He had already made Steve promise to see if the charities would take anything. He would probably have insisted that they try to find out who the people in the photos were. Danny would sort. He would agonize over items. He would reflect. He would get nostalgic over God knows what. For once Steve was glad he wasn’t there. You could clear a room fast when you didn’t make any choices or think about what you were doing.
At Wal-Mart, Steve had bought three boxes of the largest trash bags they had–“Contractor-Grade”–and a radio headset. He put the ear buds in, tuned to the classic rock station that he had listened to growing up and which still played the same song rotations, and he began pitching things into the black plastic bags. Clothing. Magazines. Pillows. Candles. Angels. When one was full, he dragged it to the curb.
In the bathroom, he found a pack of Virginia Slims in a back drawer. He didn’t know if she had been hiding them, or if she had forgotten them. He took a break and smoked one on the front porch. He felt neighbors looking at him, but no one came over. Or maybe he was imagining it. The headache was so bad he bet his eyes were slits. The Zeppelin, Doors, and Rolling Stones probably didn’t help, but he found the music comforting. He knew it so well that he didn’t have to listen.
All the fridge held was an almost empty half gallon bottle of vodka, a dozen slimfast shakes, and two slimfast breakfast bars. He put the vodka on the counter, ate the breakfast bars, and tossed the shakes. The cupboards just had boxes of cereal and crackers. Apparently, at some point, she had started eating Special K. He didn’t know when. They didn’t have anything like it growing up. This was the house of a stranger. He amused himself for a moment by fantasizing that it literally was the house of a stranger. They would be pissed when they got home.
He tried to imagine her coming home and standing in the doorway. He couldn’t. He could hear her though. The voice, so full of anger and bitterness, cut easily through the fog in his head, but he had a hard time visualizing her.
Sweeping the kitchen floor, he found half a dozen pills. They must have spilled out of the bottle or out of her hand as she swallowed the others. He plucked them from the dust pan, cradled them in his palm, and looked out the window over the sink. The backyard was overgrown; a rusted fence ran along the alley. It wasn’t much. 70 years, and this was it. Just thinking about it hurt.
He uncapped the vodka and washed the pills down. Maybe he would take a break and lie down somewhere. But not in the house. Not on her bed or couch. Maybe his car. He carried another bag outside, tried to pitch it onto the pile, and lost his balance.
The mound of bags was surprisingly comfortable. It was like the leaves they had played in as kids. He and Danny would rake a pile in the yard and then let themselves fall into it. They would bury themselves, hiding there and feeling safe for a moment. He closed his eyes. He could hear her looking for them, and, next to him, Danny was trying not to giggle.
He would just lie there for a minute. Then he would finish.