Found Wanting, by Salena Casha
For Mary Lou, garage sales had a cold air about them. It could be sunny or hot or the middle of summer and she’d draw her scarf tighter around her wide neck and suppress a shiver. Still, she relished the chill. There was a routine to the way she stopped at each auction, collected a hammer, a pair of gloves, a paperweight or anything that spoke to her and left. They bore marks of use: a set of initials on a handle, a hole in a woolen thumb, a spider web crack in glass. She liked to think of them as scars, each with its own story.
“Don’t worry,” she said to a chipped teacup as she placed it into her bag. A clink resounded from the purse’s depths and she hushed it. “I’m here.”
Had Mary Lou pursued higher education, she might have put her care-giver attitude to work in the social field by working with real people instead of the objects they abandoned. But she had an obsession with forsaken inanimate objects that no university would have put up with.
She followed pink directional signs to the last stop on the list she’d compiled from word of mouth and Google Map locators that had street views of Kentucky neighborhoods. Even though she’d never been to the same garage sale twice, the signs all read the same way, providing her with a strange sensation of déjà vu. A white house peered at her from atop a hill, its windows open. In front of the garage, a wooden table shook in the wind. Her eyes wandered over the children’s clothing, a few books.
A young girl sat in the grass next to the table, picking over dandelions. Mary Lou stiffened. Could it be the weekend? Her sense of time was skewed. No, it was Monday. But maybe it was a holiday. She shook her head. Children were hardly ever present at spring cleanings. They were in school, unaware that their parents were getting rid of things they had once loved. It was inappropriate. But the mother didn’t seem to notice. She leaned against the doorframe, her eyes focused on the child with unparalleled intensity. Mary Lou stepped from her car and inhaled. The taste of cinnamon and freshly baked bread flooded her body, her muscles tensing at the heat that emanated from the little girl. There was love here.
She gravitated toward the abandoned belongings, the familiar cold chill sweeping across her body. And she felt, as she always had, a type of empathy for the thrown-away objects. They were too simple to discern that the mother’s love was not meant for them, but rather, for the little girl. At first glance, the table’s occupants appeared beyond saving. Usually, something would call out to her and she would embrace it, listen to its story. She circled the table, paused and made to turn around when a doll’s blue iris entered her vision. A spark twinkled in the plastic eye and was gone. Mary Lou smiled and approached.
“Her name’s Linda,” a voice said. The little girl had followed Mary Lou’s gaze and was now reaching out to touch the doll’s lace skirt, but she did not make contact. Mary Lou blinked and instinctively grabbed the doll’s arm. The child sniffled and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Mary Lou’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “She was my favorite,” the girl said.
The mother had advanced, eyes flickering from the doll to the little girl. Misplaced attention, Mary Lou observed. “I’m so sorry she’s bothering you,” the mother said. She turned to the girl. “Elizabeth, you said you wanted to give her away.”
“Someone else needs Linda to play dress up and have tea parties and sing songs,” Elizabeth said. Her green eyes traced over Mary Lou, almost distrusting, as if the woman was unworthy of such a gift.
“So you’re sure you don’t want it?” The mother asked her daughter. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed to Mary Lou.
“No,” Elizabeth replied grudgingly. “Do you want Linda?” Her green eyes had turned back to Mary Lou and the woman swallowed.
There was something beneath the doll’s skin, the trace of a weakly pulsing heart. She tried not to smirk, knowing she could fix it, ease its loss, cure its pain. “Yes,” she replied.
“Take good care of her. Her favorite color is yellow,” Elizabeth said in a rushed voice.
“Elizabeth that’s enough” the mother said and shooed her away. Mary Lou watched the girl return to picking dandelions. The familiar cold breeze of abandonment trickled over her back. She felt the doll’s skin pucker beneath her grasp.
“So sorry about that. It’s just we told her about how little girls her age in China are paid a penny for each of the dolls they make. Sweatshops, you know? Trying to get her to understand that she doesn’t need them. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, about those little girls. It’s my fault. Shouldn’t have bought so many,” the mother said, shaking her head and gesturing at boxes full of plastic, blond corpses.
“It’s fine,” Mary Lou said, hand still wrapped protectively around the doll’s plastic arm. She could not save them all. The others were beyond help; their souls had departed, winked out after finding that they were no longer needed. The mother eyed Mary Lou’s purse and forced a smile. “I’ll take it,” Mary Lou said. She made sure not to touch the woman’s hand as she passed her exactly $5.50 for the poor dear.
As she returned to her beat-up Buick, doll in hand, she could still feel the child watching her. This toy would have a good story to tell. This doll knew what it meant to be no longer needed, and after the call she’d gotten today from her ex-husband, demanding where she’d hidden his pocket watch, she needed a story. She needed something to fix.
Irritatingly, the smell of cinnamon and trace heat that Mary Lou had sensed between the mother and daughter had somehow gotten into the car and now lingered in her nose. She needed to sneeze and so instead she cracked open the windows and let the outside Kentucky fall air cleanse the car.
It would have been a lie if she said she hadn’t missed his voice. It’d been over a month now since he’d left her. She like the way he responded in a clipped tone when she’d answered the phone that morning.
“The Treasure Chest,” she’d said on her junkshop phone. It had been strange he’d called the store and not the line to her upstairs’ apartment.
“It’s Ben,” he said gruffly. No last name. “I want my father’s watch back.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She replied and listened, ear pressed hard to the speaker, as he inhaled and exhaled briskly.
“The watch. The one you were obsessed with. Golden chain. Roman numeral face. My initials on the back.”
Her eyes glanced about the room and settled, for a moment, on a glinting gold piece in the far corner. She’d polished the watch’s case yesterday. “I don’t see it,” she replied, choking down the dear she usually ended such a sentence with. “Have you checked your jacket?”
He muttered something about her being a dirty-liar and she wanted to ask him what penance he’d done for sleeping with that Amsterdam prostitute on a business trip. Because, she wanted to remind him, they would have still been married if he hadn’t called her bat-shit crazy.
No more words were exchanged, just his breathing on the other end of the line. She sat there, perched on the counter stool, hand wrapped around the plastic phone until there was a loud click followed by the dial tone. She’d put the phone back on its hook and then walked across the shop to where she kept the watch, third shelf all the way to the right. She picked it up gingerly, closed her eyes and waited for it to begin its story, one she could have recited by heart.
“Benjamin Crowell Senior loved me,” it squeaked. “Loved me with all his heart. He’d wind me and tuck me into his jacket pocket and flash me about for all to see. But then his hands were cold and he stopped wearing his work jacket and gave me to that inconsiderate son of his. The one, when he was young, who would toss me between the couch cushions or stick me in the sugar pot. He didn’t use me like Sr. did. He stopped winding me and I could never remember what decade it was or time it was. And that was my whole existence, you know? Telling time, knowing precisely when it was, on what day. I had a notion that the sun wouldn’t rise if I wasn’t tuned right. And he always just left me.”
“But I kept him from selling you,” Mary Lou cooed.
“Yes. You wound my springs, you turned me to the correct time. You gave me life again,” it said. “And I am forever grateful.”
“Yes,” she said. “Do not forget the ills he has done you. Do not forget how alone you were.”
“Never.” The watch replied.
She set it back in its spot on the shelf and walked away. Without it knowing, she had turned back its time and forced it to live forever in the past. She instructed it to think that she was the answer it had waited for even though she never tucked it into her own breast pocket, merely left it on the shelf.
Shaking her head, bringing herself back to the driver seat, she gazed out the windshield. Streets had flown past her, unnoticed and somehow she had still found her way. She couldn’t wait to get back home, to unload her new possessions, to introduce the others to the doll and the teacup and the other knickknacks she’d rescued today. Gravel gritted beneath the wheels as she pulled up to her shop.
The bell chimed sorrowfully as Mary Lou pushed open the entrance, bag in tow.
“Hello,” she said as she brushed across the brass with her fingertips.
“They said I didn’t ring loud enough,” the bell began. She waved it away. Its story bored her and she had other objects to attend to.
“Tomorrow,” she muttered to it.
A photograph smiled at her from the counter, flowers engraved in iron on the sides of the frame. The picture was not of herself, just a nameless female model, smiling for the rest of her existence. But when Mary Lou touched it and closed her eyes, she could see herself in the model’s place. The girl in the photograph could have been a member of a loving family, but the photo frame, the thing that made this girl iconic, had not been. Mary Lou had dove into the muck and trash of a dumpster behind the Marshalls in townto rescue it.
Her fingers traced the model’s face. “How are you doing today, lovely?” she asked.
“Better that you’re back,” the photo replied.
She opened her purse, pulling out the assortment of items. Dust foamed the air as she placed each on the countertop beside her cash register. Her hand brushed against plastic and a spark shot up her arm followed by the slight smell of cinnamon. Snatching her hand away, she eyed the doll. The doll glinted in the light, its surface well-worn. The little girl’s face flashed through the dim store.
“You were abandoned like the rest of these objects. You were alone,” she reminded the doll.
The doll said nothing and Mary Lou sidestepped it, her fingers tracing over the teacup she’d picked up hours before finding the doll in front of a blue downtown apartment. She breathed out, settled her wide seat on the stool and prepared for her daily ritual of martyrdom. “Tell me your sorrows,” she instructed.
“I never held real tea,” it cried to her. “Only pretend. Day in, day out, I was always empty. And then Meredith didn’t even want to play with pretend anymore. And she tossed me aside for an entire kitchen set. Plastic at that.”
One by one, she went down the row of new objects, learning their stories, reassuring them that they had finally found a place in the world where they were wanted.
“I will help you carry this suffering,” she said to them. “I cannot do it alone so you must always remember what has made you find your way here.” She did not glance at the shelves surrounding her, laden with other objects. Some of them, she hated to admit, she hadn’t touched in a few years. But there were too many victims, too many to care for. The others had had their turns.
Carefully, she approached the doll. Maybe, she had just imagined the heat in the car that rolled off its plush skin and destroyed the coolness that was customary for the uninitiated objects. But a stinging pulse in the air surrounded her as she reached for the plastic hand. Electricity snapped in the room, the objects around her peering at the new member with curiosity. She threw a dishtowel over the doll’s blue eyes. The heat wave broke and the scent of cinnamon disappeared.
She distanced herself from the doll, her fingers returning to her photo frame again. She closed her eyes, humming softly to herself as the metal told its story into her hand, into her mind.
“Do not forget that you’re safe now,” she said to the frame. She set it down beside the register, the sweat on her fingertips staining the glass. The model stared back at her with its meaningless smile. “I love you the way you are,” she said.
No, a voice responded. You love them because they are powerless. Because they show you how pain exists everywhere and that love is fleeting. That love leaves everyone empty in the end. But we’re not people, Mary Lou, we’re objects. I’m just a doll.
Her eyes widened. Other belongings rustled, whispered, tittered around her. It was the doll. It had to be. The toy would corrupt them all, she was sure of it.
She blinked. It was a different voice, one she hadn’t heard in years. It issued from the trunk beneath her old-fashioned cash register. With shaking hands, she undid the clasps. A rag doll with red hair and a winking eye smiled up at her. The material was worn, faded. She did not move to touch it.
“Help me,” it whispered. “Help me and you will help yourself.”
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” Mary Lou said, addressing the blue-eyed doll she’d hidden beneath the dishtowel. “But it stops now.” Her voice had risen to a screech but she did not shut the trunk.
The rag doll was the only possession she had when she was young, the last piece of her past from the orphanage she’d grown up in. She could never remember the time or place before the orphanage when she had existed. She had always been alone before They adopted her. Dan and Patricia from Rhode Island. A nice couple with a lot of money and a big yard for her to play. Patricia’s smile was like the model in the picture frame. Half-formed, as if glued there, the corners of her mouth too tight for it to be true. That said, Mary Lou had not touched Raggedy Ann, as the doll was aptly named, in years.
“I haven’t thrown her away like your owner did to you,” she said to Elizabeth’s doll, her voice coming out in a hiss. She was never harsh with her belongings, never used this type of tone. But her words spilled out like acid as she turned back to the newcomer. “I’ve kept it.”
But you never loved it after you left, the voice continued. You had a new house and a new family and a new life. You didn’t need her anymore. But she doesn’t forget that you loved her at one point. In your own way, Mary Lou, you’ve abandoned her.
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” Mary Lou snapped.
Touch it then. Show me what it is I don’t understand. She saved you from pain, she held onto your memories for you and she still hurts too, because she loves you. The red-headed doll smiled and stretched its arm out to her. But Mary Lou did not advance. Or better yet, let me tell you my story.
Chills slid up her spine, but Mary Lou’s fingertips gravitated toward the blue-eyed doll, away from her Raggedy Ann. Heat shot through her body. She swallowed and tried to breathe, but the stench of cinnamon nearly suffocated her. There was no sense of loss in the blue-eyed doll that held her hand. Only love. It wasn’t possible,
Elizabeth hugged the doll to her chest, her smile lighting up her face. “She’s just what I wanted,” she exclaimed.
Mary Lou blinked. She wanted to pull away, to stop seeing, but her fingers were glued.
Walks in the park, tea parties, dress-up, the doll’s days were never-ending, filled with adventure.
Pain ripped through Mary Lou’s body. Her knees bent, her skin scraping the floor. I don’t want to know your past, she whispered to it. No one abandons something they love.
Elizabeth’s hand guided the doll through dances. “I can tell you all my secrets,” the green-eyed child whispered.
“I love you,” the girl whispered in the doll’s ear.
“I was loved. She gave me away hoping that some empty child would find comfort in me. That you would find some hope in me,” the blue-eyed doll said. “You can’t let your doll bear your pain forever. You can’t keep embracing other’s pain because it makes you feel better about your own life. You must face it. Set it free. Stop being a martyr for everyone but yourself.”
Tears stung Mary Lou’s eyes as she found her hand slipping around the rag slim waist. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered as the memories pulled her back under.
They rushed into her mind, thoughts she had so long kept locked away. The way the orphanage head has punished her with the blinking belt buckle. It was gold, and for a moment Mary Lou recalled the pocket watch. Her past had followed her into her other belongings. And she remembered how she’d spent sleepless nights, huddled on her cot, whispering, “I love you, I love you, don’t leave me, don’t leave me,” in the doll’s ear.
Mary Lou’s dress-up was one she’d only played in her imagination. No chiffon Cinderella skirts, no puffy sleeves or mother’s makeup smeared on her cheeks or soles slapping high-heeled shoes.
And even after she’d been adopted, Patricia and Dan hadn’t loved her. She was their life-sized doll. An object, not a person, something they could potentially abandon later. She’d left first and ran away from home three times before she turned eighteen. The bruises beneath Mary Lou’s skin resurfaced. And she knew that love did not belong in a world full of pain. Tears blurred her vision as the room slid away from her. Save me, Mary Lou wanted to cry out.
But how could she speak to objects, share her epiphany with them? Her hand gripped the phone line, her fingers poised to punch in her ex-husband’s number. The man who had called her crazy and disturbed. How little he had known about her life.
“All along it’s him you’ve needed. More than us, just another person,” the blue-eyed doll said.
“No,” Mary Lou replied. It was clear to her now, the shop, the pieces of junk she collected, everything she had done after she’d run away. They all reminded her of what the red-haired doll had held for her for so long.
“I just need him to understand why.”
A breeze teased her curls, the air smelling damp: a prelude to the storm. She stood on the walkway of the Cumberland River Bridge, her elbows balanced on the iron railing. Slowly, she lifted her eyes from the brown water and reached into her bag, leather gloves strapped onto her hands. It was night, the lights lit across the top of metal arches.
Her first doll’s gaze was empty, its red hair stringy and ragged. Finally put to rest. She dangled the doll from its foot over the empty air. Taking a deep breath, she released it from her grasp. A splash echoes from the river. One by one, she would relieve the others. Set them free. Set herself free. She caressed the bracelets around her wrists, smiling, in spite of herself, at the abandoned sound their chimes made. We need you, we want you.
And she felt, for the first time in years, that she was not alone.
Salena Casha’s work has appeared in over twenty publications but she’d give up every one of them to see another live Coldplay concert (except for the short story published in Infective Ink for The Affair theme). She enjoys drinking coffee, preferably made for her, while rewriting the future. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c
3 readers love this story!
Tags: break ups, creepy, death, family, mental illness, relationships, Salena Casha