The Glory Doll

I guess I’m missing that hustling gene. When I was a teenager I waited tables and babysat. Big deal. Never made enough money to buy a car or a horse. From nineteen to twenty-two I tried college. I didn’t much care for Emily Dickinson and algebra and beyond that I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to be—other than Madonna or some kind of porn star. They didn’t offer any How to Take Over MTV Much Like Madonna or How to Be a Successful Porn Star Like Jenna Jameson courses at the corny little college I half-ass attended. So I gave up on the American dream and just contented myself with living in the garage or storage space or whatever you want to call it behind my grandmother’s house. I did all the chores and yardwork and ran all the errands in my grandmother’s Ford Taurus, a solid, respectable car with a Juicy Fruit gum-scented interior. My grandmother always kept sticks of that gum in her purse. I chewed some on occasion but never made it a habit.

The thing is, I couldn’t live inside the house because my grandmother occupied one room and The Glory Doll occupied the other, the one with the most sunlight. I’ve tried explaining The Glory Doll to various people. Everyone gets creeped out. Most elements of my life creep people out. It’s something I’ve had no choice but to accept.

My grandfather died when I was three years old. I have no memories of the man. I’m told he was hilarious and kind, which seems generic to me. My mom was/is my grandmother’s eldest child but she took off when I was ten. She might be in Canada. Hell. She could be on the moon for all I know. Uncle Matthew is the middle kid. He’s an electrician. He didn’t visit often. Whenever he dropped by for Thanksgiving or whatever, he just sat on the sofa, drinking beer and glaring at me. I don’t know why he was bitter. He made good money and seemed to have a decent wife. She was on a bowling league and made a mean peach cobbler.

But then there was Elizabeth. The aunt I never knew. Betty, they called her. Betty the baby hung herself with a belt when she was fifteen. She was pregnant. She hung herself in that room, the room where The Glory Doll stayed. Betty’s canopy bed was still in that room exactly as it was when she was alive. Everything was the same. It looked like the bedroom of a teenage girl. But instead of a teenage girl the room was occupied by The Glory Doll, a doll my grandmother paid someone to make right after Betty died, or passed, as my grandmother liked to say. The doll was created to look just like Betty when she was five years old. The photograph the doll was based on hung in a gilt frame above the bedside table, which was dusty. The Glory Doll rested against a bunch of ruffled pillows on the pink and lavender canopy bed. She had long curly black hair, a porcelain face and hands, a rosebud mouth, snub nose and green eyes with eyelashes. Like little Betty in the photograph she wore a red velvet dress with a white ruffled petticoat, white ruffled socks and shiny black mary janes. In her hair was a big red velvet bow.

My grandmother caught me holding the doll once, told me I was too old to play with dolls, told me to never go in that room again. She always had to control things, which I guess is one of the reasons why my mom finally took off without so much as a Kiss My Ass and Goodbye. I guess it changes a woman, losing a child to death, especially to suicide. I’ve never given birth, never even had sex, so I can’t relate. I’ve always been too quiet and peculiar to have a boyfriend. There was just one guy in college and I don’t even remember his name. We were both drunk at some party. Freshmen drunk on keg beer. I do remember the song that was playing when we made out. “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I’ve always hated that song. It’s one of those songs I scream at and change the channel as soon as it comes on the radio. Eddie Vedder should be ashamed of himself for recording a shitty song like that but the damn thing has been so affirmed and well-received that he probably thinks it’s one of the most powerful songs ever recorded. I’m sure he falls asleep smiling.

I’ve seen the picture of Betty’s boyfriend, the guy who knocked her up. I saw it the same day I held the doll. I opened the single drawer in the bedside table. There was a stack of photographs. All family photographs except for the one photograph of Betty and Bobby, dressed up for some big-deal school dance. Betty and Bobby. Sounds like a Lesley Gore song. She’s royalty, in the photograph. No crown, nothing corny like that. I mean she isn’t smiling, isn’t selling herself cheesy and cheap to the camera, is just confronting the camera with her lovely regal face, so cool and poised in her pale blue dress with spaghetti straps. No jewelry. Just a carnation corsage on her left wrist. Her perfect beauty is forever captured in that photograph to haunt anyone who might witness it. I’m haunted. Bobby must be haunted, if he has any kind of sense at all. I’m sure he’s married by now to a Kathy or Denise, working some bullshit job he hates, supporting two or three kids. Maybe he’s been to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls or even Paris, the lucky bastard. But he’s frozen in that photograph, a pale young skinny boy with a buzz cut, just months away from being informed that his pregnant girlfriend has murdered herself and their child in her room with the canopy bed and its ruffled pillows and a crucifix hanging to the left of the vanity where she applied her Pink Roses Forever lipstick. I’ve sat at that vanity. I’ve applied that lipstick. No amount of lipstick could make me pretty or beautiful or lovely or regal. I’ve accepted that, as I’ve accepted so many other things.

“She still comes to me in dreams and tells me things,” my grandmother told me once. We were sitting in the den watching her program, as she called it. A soap opera that took place in a made-up West Virginia town. No one ever ate anything. The characters ordered food at this quaint café but they never actually touched the food. You don’t see the coal mines or dollar stores or poor dirty rednecks with goiters and distended stomachs, just immaculate actors with gleaming white teeth and expensive hair. They didn’t even have Southern accents. All of Us Sinners, the show was called.

“What kind of things?” I asked.
“Well, in the latest dream she said, ‘Mama, there’s gonna come a cloud.’ There was a tornado not two days later.”
“I remember that tornado.”
“Of course you do, Nancy. It was just last week.”
“The days all kinda run together. The days are so much creamed corn.”
“You should socialize more.”
“I don’t have the guts for a messy love life.”
“You can socialize without getting into that sort of thing. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you finding some girls at church to go get a Coke with on occasion.”
“Nah. No one wants to get a Coke with someone like me. I’m terrible news.”
“I don’t understand you at all, Nancy.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to. Understanding me ain’t in your job description.”

Bless my grandmother’s heart. That’s what everyone says around here in Deer Valley, Texas. Bless her heart. Bless your heart. Bless my poor tortured grandmother’s heart. She doesn’t know about the one night I spent in bed with The Glory Doll, my fingers in all that hair. I didn’t have any dreams at all that night and I left before the sun had a chance to come up and paint me a sinner.