BARBIE DEATH STAR
Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.
Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.
She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”
Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.
She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?
Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.
Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.
She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.
She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.
When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.
Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.
There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.
Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.
Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.
When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.
“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.
He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.
Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.
The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.
Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.
Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.
Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.
Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.
The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.
Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.
She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.
Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.
Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.
“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.
“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”
But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.
“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.
“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”
Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.
Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.
The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.
“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”
Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.
The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?
Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.
After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.
“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”
“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”
Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.
“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”
“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”
Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.
“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”
“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.
“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”
“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.
“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”
“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”
The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.
“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?
“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”
“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”
So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.
“What’s that?” asks Joan.
“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”
They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.
“Is this legal?” asks Joan.
“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.
The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.
“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.
“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”
“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”
“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”
Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.
“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”
“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”
Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.