Summertime. From somewhere down the street, the drone of a lawn mower’s engine was overheard. A dog barked and played an early morning game of fetch. Birdsong filled the air.
Behind the sturdy beams that wrapped the walls of the Jacksons’ tidy house on 13th Street, two children patiently waited for their father. A small-sized travel suitcase lay open and tipped upon an area rug. Their mother had found the case in the basement, dusted it off, and handed it over. “Here girls,” she had said. “This will do. A proper home for paper dolls.”
The travel case made the perfect unexpected hide away for a paper doll family. The leather surface had been dyed the colour of ripe tomatoes in August. The inner silk lining was pristine and slippery to touch. One lift of the shiny latch and their childish imaginations took flight. One click and their fantasy world locked up, safe.
The girls sat cross- legged on a newly upholstered couch, arguing over cut outs and snipped clothes. Annie had shut the glass doors that separated the living room from the hallway. It was Sunday. Their mother was sleeping in. She raised a finger to her lips.
Weekends meant adventures with their father. She wondered where they’d go today? Would it be to ‘Bing’s’? She hoped so. Sometimes, their father’s friend, Miss Birdie, took them shopping.
Annie adored Miss Birdie. She was everything out of the ordinary.
“Lets get out of here,” Miss Birdie’d say with a wink. “Leave the men to business.”
Miss Birdie always held her hand. They’d walk, skip until they came to the curio shop with the letters printed on glass, ‘Old Shanghai.’ Birdie was generous. “Darlings. Pick out a toy.” Opening her patent purse, she’d slip out a fistful of coins and place some into Annie’s palm. “Let your little Dolly choose, too.” This was the name Miss Birdie had assigned to Madeline.
The choices were endless, each bamboo basket filled to the brim with treasure. ”Look up, girls.” She’d point toward the ceiling of the crowded little shop. Colourful kites dangled in air. On high glass shelves, traditional silk dolls with inky hair, gazed off into the distance. “Precious,” she’d whisper as she pulled Annie closer.
Birdie became wistful at the mere mention of the Chinese silk dolls. ”I still have the doll my mother gave me for my sixth birthday.”
Once Annie had asked her, “Are you sad, Miss Birdie?”
“No hon. I’m reminded of another time. A time when I was younger.”
Curious, Annie ventured further into Birdie’s mind. “What colour was your doll’s gown?”
To which Birdie replied, “Scarlet like a ruby.”
How beautiful they are, Annie had thought, like angels must be. Her thoughts quickly returned to the touchable pieces: shuttle cocks with glowing pink feathers, Chinese yo-yos, rattle drums and tin toys. Her favourite toy had been the wind up hen that pecked at the ground.
On their last foray to China Town, Annie had selected a bamboo snake, fascinated by the way it moved. When held mid-air, its segments darted left then right. She wanted more.Was it wrong to wish for more? She hoped her father would take them to Bing’s.
Wait and see, she thought. Carefully, Annie spread the perfectly formed paper family on top of a round cushion. The mother, resplendent in a screened slip, with lace hem, looked off into the distance, as if dreaming on an island made of velvet cloth. Their real mother slept in on Sundays.
“I’m the Mommy. You’re the baby,” Annie said. She lifted the perfectly shaped paper mother from the palm of her younger sister’s hand and dangled it to catch the light streaming through the window.
She studied the doll like a cat to a mouse, pounce ready if Madeline dared to touch this treasure. The mother doll’s heavily lined eyes made her look sleepy. The heart-shaped face and pouted lips suggested the mother was cross.
Madeline’s voice protested. “No. You’re a baby. “I’m always the baby.” She balled her fists and lowered her head toward the carpet, shutting her eyes in an action to force back tears.
“Fine,” Annie said,”Eeney, Meeny, Miny, Moe-, “
Madeline let out a screech.
“Pig snout- You are OUT,” chided Annie.
“What’s going on in here?”
Two heads swung round. Both girls looked up at their father. Spicy cologne hung like a cloud. His eyes briefly fixed upon each child. Satisfied by their choice of dress, he nodded. Annie stared back and thought her father handsome in his Harrington.
It was an expectation that they dress up for outings. Her summer dress was sleeveless and A-line. She had no idea why her mother had said, “It’s bark cloth.” The cloth felt softer than the skin on the trunk of a tree. When questioned, her mother’s comment was, “It’s special fabric, Annie. Toile. That’s French for canvas.” Her mother had sighed, “Reminds me of an oil painting.”
Scarlet willow trees, birds mid-flight, and leaping stags, covered the cloth. Madeline’s fabric was also toile adorned in nimbus grey trees and farmyard creatures. Their mother had sewn each dress, staying up late to finish. She had placed a dress at the foot of each bed, ready for wear.
“Let’s go, girls.” Roy’s fingers snapped as he checked his watch. “And remember what I said, ‘No fighting. Good manners.’”
Annie asked, “Where are we going?”
“We’re meeting my friend,” he said.
Annie scrambled to collect the scattering of cut out clothes and gingerly placed the accessories into the waiting travel case.
She clicked the suitcase lock and clutched the plastic handle. Facing her sister, she said, “You can be the Mommy.”
Madeline raised her head to look back. Her lips parted and she stuck out her tongue.
Once more, their world set right.
“Let’s get going.” With one hand on each shoulder, Roy herded his daughters, gently pushing them out the front door. Like reluctant lambs, they tottered down the steps to the curb.
Roy held the door while the girls slipped into the back seat of the Lincoln. They had their chosen spots: Annie seated behind her father, Madeline to the right. Between them sat the coveted travel case. They slipped off their dress shoes, imagined the feel of the carpet their feet didn’t touch. This was their father’s rule and they followed orders.
As the car pulled from the curb, Annie looked back at the house. She wondered if it would still be there, standing on the lot, when they returned.
“Let’s turn up the tunes.” Roy’s voice slipped over her thoughts. He poked at the car’s lighter and reached into the glove compartment to pull out a freshly wrapped cigar. “Best behaved girl gets the ring.”
And this is the wonder of children: Their simplicity of thought, an innate ability to bend brainwaves at the mere suggestion of a worthless trinket sized prize. Both girls sat straighter, hands in lap.
With the windows rolled down and a song about a nickel two- stepping in air, the Jackson Family began another adventure.
The houses seemed to spread further apart as the family drove east. Deciduous trees, their leafy limbs reaching for the sun, transformed into groves of branches spread wide. Forested evergreens thickened as the family whizzed past. Finally, the highway narrowed into a two lane road and the girls noticed fewer cars.
“This must be the country,” Annie whispered to her sister.
Farm country. Annie and Madeline knew this from their story books. Both girls wondered if they might see sheep. Sometimes, when Madeline couldn’t sleep, Annie lay beside her sister. “Count sheep,” she had said. And they’d count, “46, 47, 48, 50.” Annie would interrupt, “49- we forgot 49.” Now, both girls wanted proof that counted sheep are real.
Annie asked,“I wonder what sheep feel like?”
Madeline shrugged and touched the lamb that lingered on the cloth of her dress.
“Maybe cotton,” Annie said. “Like cotton balls.”
That image brought a curve to Madeline’s lips. “Or clouds,” she said.
Roy’s voice cut through their thoughts, “Just up ahead girls. You can stretch at the car lot.”
Annie asked, “Why are we going to a car lot?” Their car was new and it seemed to be in working order.
“To pick up Daddy’s friend. She needs a ride. Her car is in the shop for repairs.”
Both girls looked at one another, puzzled by this comment. Didn’t this lady have a man? Wasn’t their mother the only lady who rode in the car?
The Lincoln turned left off of the two lane road and slowed to a crawl. “Here we are,” their father said as the car came to rest on a gravel lot.
A woman stood beneath an awning that read: ‘Mossom Motors’. She waved as the car approached. A scarf, knotted at the chin, hid her hair. Dark strands peeked from beneath the hem of the silk. Her shirt was white, her arms bare. Nested about her shoulders was a cardigan, the sleeves firmly tied to keep it in place. A flared skirt, the colour of sky powdered fairy floss, covered most of her legs. The lady’s feet were slipped into ballet flats. She held a picnic basket.
Annie thought her pretty, as beautiful as the cut out mother shut away from view. Perhaps, even prettier. She watched as her father got out of the car and went round to open the passenger door. Speechless, she saw him briefly touch the woman’s shoulder.
The lady slipped into the car, turned, and faced them. She smiled.
Their father leaned in, his head touching the lady’s scarf. “Girls,” he said, “This is Miss Stella Jones. Stella works for me.”
At the mention of these words, Miss Jones laughed and pointed at their father. “He works for me.”
“Hello, Miss Jones,” Annie said.
Madeline didn’t acknowledge Miss Jones, rather, she reared back as if the lady might bite.
Annie shrugged. “She’s only three.”
Miss Jones nodded and once again smiled. Her lips were the colour of chalky bubblegum. She extended her hand toward Annie and then, Madeline.
“Aren’t you both adorable,” she said. Turning slightly, she continued, “They’re cute, Roy. Must take after their mother.” She winked.
At the mention of their mother, Madeline spoke up. “My tummy hurts. I want Mommy.”
Miss Jones looked as if a curtain had dropped in front of her.
“Oh look.” She cocked her head to one side and pointed at the object positioned between the two children. “I see a lovely travel case. Tell me what’s inside?” Her words tumbled out. “Let me guess. Bathing suits. For the river?” Her words struggled to swim upstream as Madeline’s sobs grew louder.
Roy interrupted. “That’s enough, Madeline.” He held Annie’s gaze to suggest, Fix it. “Roll down the window. We’ll take a drive to the river. You can play on the bank, get some fresh air.” He rummaged in the ashtray. “Here’s a ring. You won, Maddy.” His voice stretched like an elastic band. “Madeline Jackson is hereby given this ring. She is the quietest passenger in my car.”
Softly, without sound, tears slipped down Madeline’s flushed cheeks. She placed the ring on her lap. Her tiny fingers pinched at the lamb imprinted on her dress. Annie took her sister’s hand and gave it a squeeze.
Like rain on a rock, Madi’s tears splashed and seeped into her linen smock. The child’s slight frame stiffened as she willed herself to bear sorrow with outer determination.
The girls sat silent. A man’s deep voice rang out from the radio, Oh the shark, has pearly teeth, dear.
Annie shivered and grinned, lifted her shoulders and swayed her head from side to side, Oh the shark bites with his teeth, dear, she teased as she lifted her sister’s hand and swung it to the beat.
From the front seat a woman’s voice broke into song, Sunday, Sunday morning. She leaned against Roy and asked, “What’s the next line?”
Something about cash, something rash, their father laughed. For a split second their shoulders touched.
From the back seat, Annie spoke above the music. “Miss Jones.”
Stella spun around at the mention of her name. “Yes, hon.”
“Our paper dolls are inside the red case. It’s Mommy’s case. She gave it to us.”
“Oh. How lovely-“
Annie interrupted her. “We keep our paper dolls inside the case.” Annie’s finger ran along the outside of the leather. “It’s their home.”
Stella smiled. “That’s nice, dear.”
Annie continued to speak, determined to finish her thought. “Some of the dolls are store bought, others, our Mommy draws.”
Annie’s off- handed mention of Jacqueline had pricked Stella. Suddenly she didn’t feel as gay as she had felt when she slid into the car. Her never ending smile tightened in place. She struggled to get out from behind the finality of the moment. Stella realized that her relationship with Roy Jackson existed within a parallel universe: One of wives, children, and stomach aches.
She stared down the long road ahead.