Mack Day studied the Fun Grabber machine in the corner while he sipped his coffee. One of the toys–a plastic and plush dancer in a green sequined dress–blinked at him.
He blinked back, wondering if it was one of a handful of cutesy motion-activated electronica. His daughter had liked those the most. After all, it was only 50 CENTS TO PLAY.
“Help me, please,” mouthed the doll, shivering. Her brunette hair, streaked with chic touches of purple, caught the light just so. The glitter embedded in her little faux-rouged cheeks spangled. “Please,” she silently aspirated.
No, he thought, though it had nothing to do with previous encounters with animate dolls. He squirmed in the booth seat. His left foot moved heavily, and the old phantom pains returned like an old friend with a bad attitude.
The doll’s eyes pleaded.
He sipped more coffee.
“Renee?” he said to the part-time waitress.
The high schooler came over. “Yes, sir, Mr. Day?”
He thumbed some money. “For the meal and coffee.”
“Tip in there?” said Renee.
“A good waitress oughtn’t ask that,” said Mack.
“Mr. Day, I’m a great waitress.”
“And confident.“ He took a last sip of coffee, then grabbed his briefcase. Just before he closed the lid, he looked at an old photo in there of his wife and daughter smiling back at him from some hazy, gray distant place frozen in the crinkled celluiod of the photograph. He gave them a tight-lipped smile. Turning again to Renee, he said, “As usual, thanks.”
“Enjoy grading those papers.”
“Urmp. ‘Enjoy’ is a relative term, to be sure, with this batch.” He eased out of the booth and limped away after saying bye to Renee and Clint the cook.
The doll watched him through the double-view of the Fun Grabber’s Plexiglas and the plate glass of the Breakfast All Day restaurant.
Her plastic eyes with their cerulean irises convicted Mack Day’s back though she had no plastic tears to shed.
He lived only four blocks away in an old Victorian style home in a series of blocks the local preservationist society decided actually needed little preserving. Once home–his left foot gave him holy hell–he left the briefcase on the little table in the foyer. A grandfather clock ticked hollow reminders at him as his steps tried their best to echo off the hardwood floor.
Past the old family photos on the buffet.
Checking the answering machine (nothing there).
Into the kitchen and to the cabinet above the microwave niche for something for his foot.
He laughed at the thought, but he removed his shoes and looked down, slipping off his loafers and cursing the left foot that looked like a prop off some robot movie. He dreaded going to bed because the pain would persist, maybe blunted, like now, just like–
Nevermind. Forget it.
He went to the cabinet and opened the brown bottle with its rolling refill and told himself it was for the phantom pain. But aren’t all pains phantom? A helluva note when something that’s just not there anymore decides it still hurts. He doled himself a tablet and chewed it, letting the bitter pharmaceutical mystery spread against his tongue, under his tongue, down his throat, and into the branching wonder of his bloodstream so much faster for his having chewed it.
No. Twofer, he told himself, chewing another one.
He didn’t have to be at work until lunch tomorrow.
A T-bone isn’t just a steak. It’s a log truck with shitty brakes and a Honda Accord. A mangled ankle and foot.
A pair of graves, one smaller than the other.
Two rooms that stay closed. Photos covered in dust you’re never going to clean. A half-day teaching position so you don’t go batshit crazy, but at least there’s the group health because your foot can only be so screwed up as opposed to the stumps on the inside that just won’t heal.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays–the routine was simple. Work those days and grade Humanities papers Monday through Wednesday, World Lit. papers on Thursdays and Fridays. Go to Breakfast All Day for double grits and two eggs over well.
“Routine can be salutary,” discovered Mack Day for a one hundred fifty dollar co-pay at the local mental health clinic–the summation of time much like his signature on the check.
So, for the next two weeks, he sat somewhere else in the restaurant but couldn‘t shake the feeling of being watched–of being truly watched–by the doll in the green sequined dress.
“Hey, Clint. Where’s Renee?” he asked the cook, who reminded him of Powers Boothe.
“Dance recital,” said Clint. He slung together chicken-fried steak slathered in gravy with an asparagus-and-mushroom omelet on the side.
“Oh, good for her,” said Mack. He watched the short-order genius at work and allowed a tic of smile to touch the corner of his mouth.
He got up to pay at the register. How long had it been since he’d done that?
The Fun Grabber stood on the oblique corner from him–right in a natural line of sight. He saw a little plastic hand against the Plexiglas. There were new plush whatzits in there, and the doll had shifted so that a purple bear sat on her torso. Her legs, as before, were still buried in the miscellany of generic pirates and ninjas and superheroes and clear plastic boxes with shiny plastic jewelry inside.
“Thanks,” he told Clint.
Mack Day took his change, pocketed most of it, went over to the Fun Grabber, and clunked in fifty cents as offering to the machine. He grabbed the joystick. The claw dangled and shuddered with each concomitant jerky movement of the joystick. Before he could press the red button, the digital timer ran down, and the claw dropped in preset punishment into the plastic-and-cloth wonder below and got nothing.
He saw the little smooth-palmed hand drag on the Plexiglas. Somewhere was her head. No mouth to pantomime speech; of that he was glad.
“Always wanted to try my luck at one of these,” he lied to Clint, who gratefully wasn’t paying attention because he had more orders going in some rather amazing short-order symphonic movements.
Mack made it through another dollar’s worth of attempts and got lucky. He was nowhere near the doll. Into the drop chute fell a dragon, its skin a mysterious, iridescent, magical polyester. He put it in his coat pocket as the little dancer’s hand moved again; he wasn’t sure if it was a laudatory wave or a wave good-bye. He knelt and could see her face, shadowed by the bear.
He thought he saw a smile.
When Mack left, Clint was still putting together interesting culinary motifs for a call-in order–heavy on the omelets and some massive coronary of a burrito–and saw no other patrons.
Only the doll‘s hand.
Time is relative and can be shut off. Einstein never posited that, but he never lost people he loved nor his foot to a too-tired driver.
Clocks can be unplugged. Snooze buttons can be hit. Doors can be shut. Thresholds can be marked against passage.
These are the passives that receive Mack Day’s life.
He does not recall how long he had stood in front of the door with the crystal knob like a jewel. All the interior doorknobs have been replaced–years now–with generic brass knobs, but not this one, which is “the biggest diamond full of rainbows.” Such a big metaphor for a little girl, Mack had thought at the time. Prevailing upon him, she had kept it.
Mack grabs the knob.
Time is relative.
Dust covers the posters and vanity and desk and bureau. The bed is still unmade. In one corner, arrayed amid various pillows–for should not she have had extra pillows for comfort and security?–sprawls a gathering of stuffed animals.
He places the iridescent dragon on the bed; it points its snout at the door as though on sentry detail. Or maybe looking for cup-thieves.
Mack flips down one corner edge of the comforter.
He trails a finger through the dust on the bureau. He pauses to study the picture frame there, too, the one of his wife and daughter–a copy of the same photo all worn and crinkled and housed in his briefcase. He could almost touch his wife’s brunette hair, almost take a knuckle and caress his daughter’s cheeky face. He loves this particular photo, the way the light caught their eyes. Still has it held captive.
Time, he tells himself, is relative.
The dragon flickers its tongue at his back to offer concurrence.
Mack shuts the door.
The weeks drew on, and Mack became progressively busier by virtue of spring semester’s drawing to a close. That meant being inundated by the last of the tests and term papers and final exams. His office kept him from most of his trips to Breakfast All Day except for coffee. He began to understand why ennui hit retirees, why depression snuck up on formerly able-bodied folk. Work was diversion, home a place to sleep and eat and shower and keep clothes.
“Been missing you around here, Mr. Day,” said Renee one evening.
“Been missing myself,” he said, tapping the attaché case and setting an essay back inside. “A necessary evil though a timesink.”
“Tell me about it. I just turned in a research paper for American Lit/Comp,” she said.
He drank some coffee. “Do tell.”
“e.e. cummings and ‘since feeling is first,’” said Renee. “Felt sorry for my teacher.”
“For the quality of your paper?”
She laughed. “No, sir. For my teacher’s having to grade six classes’ worth of research papers.”
With a sheepish grin, Mack gestured at his briefcase. “Only the venue changes, I’m afraid. Core classes are just high school accelerated, pretty much.” He shut the case and took the ticket from Renee and paid and tipped her. “Hope you get good marks for Mr. cummings.”
“Thanks.” She took the money and put it in the register while pocketing her tip. “Skipping the Fun Grabber?”
“Long day.” He said.
“You know, the claw’s tension can be loosened, so even if you latch onto a toy, it’s unlikely you’ll get it.”
“Guess the house wins in the long run, eh?”
The doll spied him from behind the shadow of the purple bear.
“You know, when it’s slow–and that’s rarely–Clint and I have little contests to see who can get a toy within two plays. It’s usually a bust. But the other day, some kid got that ninja with the grappling hook for an arm,” said Renee. “First try.”
“Fluke,” humphed Mack.
“Sour grapes,” said Renee.
“Hey, Renee, you going to work or jaw?” said Clint.
“I’m dealing with a tipper, here,” she said.
“I’m dealing with an upstart right there,” he said, pointing at her with a spatula flecked with bits of scrambled egg.
“You two enjoy the rest of your shift,” said Mack, offering a half-hearted grin and turning around to leave.
The doll dances. Light spangles on the green sequined dress, and Mack claps his hands. He is the only one present at this impromptu recital, held in Breakfast All Day, whose floor space is bigger and accommodating some bunting and a snack table and a banner.
THANK YOU FOR COMING! CONGRATULATIONS! YOU MADE IT!
The vague pronoun references, he thinks during a tiny window of lucid dreaming, seem wholly apropos.
Free of the machine, the doll peacock struts a few steps, then executes tip-top pirouettes, and her glissades defy the devilish fricative forces of the linoleum. The purple bear, still stuck in the Fun Grabber, pushes his snout to the glass, and even his licorice eyes glitter under the lights. His stitched up mouth works hard–but not hard enough–to offer the doll encouragement. He waves his paws to no avail. He pounds the glass. Still she dances as though in some eerie Zen state.
The purple bear notices Mack Day, and Mack notices the bear and raises his coffee cup. Then he notices the strain on the stitching of the purple bear’s mouth–how the seams look ready to rip.
Then comes a blink and a flitter-flutter of flickering lights in the diner–Where are Renee and Clint and the regulars? Wouldn’t they appreciate the doll’s newfound freedom?–and a storm blows up.
Mack tries to sip some coffee.
The lights flicker again. The Fun Grabber shudders, and the purple bear rocks inside. The other toys–the dumb ones–don’t care in their apathy after so long unnoticed. The claw zips back and forth on its track guide as the bear regains tenuous footing. Mack spills coffee on his chin and shirtfront.
The sky outside darkens considerably, and he hears tink-tink-ta-tink-ta-tink sounds.
Now the doll stops, her mouth a perfect O of shock, already wide eyes impossibly wider.
“Look out!” she mouths, still mute though free of the machine.
The doors whip open from the gusts of wind off the storm. The air begins to crystallize, frost forming. The doll freezes in mid-stride and topples over as a ribbon of shadow streams inside and wraps her up.
“No!” thinks Mack. He rises from his corner booth and falls. His left foot, whose prosthetic is somehow melted to his other pantleg, won’t work, and he squirms forward.
Pairs of hands reach down, plucking up the doll and swirling and skirling in the diner in a maddening gyre. They exit. The doors slam shut so hard the glass shatters.
Mack reaches for the doll as she suffocates in the puffy dark of the ribbon of shadow. “Please!” she mouths as two more faces frame her own.
Mack squeezes his eyes shut and screams at the faces in the shadow. But only silence comes.
The bear he understands now.
Along with the coffee on his chin and shirt.
His own mouth is stitched shut.
Mack stayed late at work for appointments with his World Lit. students to conference on their research papers. He entered some marks in his book, went over some notes, then gave himself an hour to grade some unit tests: Baroque and Rococo for Humanities and The Wounded and the Maimed in Arthurian Legend for World Lit. before leaving.
The college had the hum of habitation gone stale with night classes; the night crew of janitors were out as footnotes to another day in the halls of academe.
Outside it was nice and temperate. He headed down the twisty walkways of campus, then to the town’s Euclidean-proper sidewalks and on home. A spot of coffee would be stellar. Maybe another go at the Fun Grabber. Who knew?
Two blocks away he entered the well-manicured “other” historic section of town. He did like the landscaped medians on the streets here, though. Fireflies were out, flickering arcane bioluminescent code as a few joggers appeared in pools of streetlamp light, then became shadows again.
As he crossed the street, he heard tandem screeches and rent-metal noises. Half a block back a truck had crashed. Mack headed that way; this wasn’t the busiest street, especially for such a bucolic neighborhood this time of night.
It was a delivery truck, a longbed with removable aluminum rails. The thing it had carried lay in several chunks of sheet metal and broken Plexiglass while the driver crawled out the cab.
“Here, easy,” said Mack, helping the man.
“Wouldn’t reflective tape be nice for night-joggers?” said the man after a string of curse words. He flipped out a cell phone and dialed 911.
Mack waited. Shaken and stirred, the driver stayed on the line.
Then Mack studied the wreckage.
Its guts lay in a plush amorphous pool of stuffed toys and chunks of claw machine.
The Fun Grabber.
“That is one helluva mess,” said the driver, whose long day just got much longer.
“If it were daytime and kids saw that, could you imagine?”
“Not at all,” said Mack. He thought of the doll. In the jumbled viscera of toys on the asphalt in the low street lighting, he couldn’t make out much.
The police arrived along with the obligatory, precautionary ambulance. A witness report was filed. The driver and cops thanked Mack for his Good Samaritan-ship, and along he moved.
From the coverts of crepe myrtle limbs, she watched the scene unfold. Then she watched Mack go over and pick up the briefcase and with a pronounced limp start back home.
Plastic eyes gleamed as stiff-yet-not-stiff plastic limbs moved. With a surreptitious swing down from crepe myrtle branches, she let the night absorb her in a ribbon of dark between cyclopean streetlamps.
The question of going to Breakfast All Day resolved and absolved itself of any Fun Grabber issues. Mack wondered if Renee and Clint had had one last go and thought it would’ve been nice to have joined them.
Once home his bones reminded him how tired he was and him how used to the evening coffee he’d become. He set the briefcase on the table and went on to bed. He was so tired that he didn’t even remove the prosthetic left foot. Sleep invaded Mack–dreamless sleep while a wakeful dream roamed somewhere on the fringes of the house.
The door opens, and the hardwood floor cannot betray the intruder.
Ice-blue eyes peer around, and a tight plasticized smile forms.
A smile of relief.
Mack lay awake a minute or two listening to his house. The ceiling fan tick-tick-ticked its revolutions. But he’d come awake knowing he had to wake. A twinge of phantom pain and definite irritation vexed him, and he realized he’d gone to sleep with his prosthetic foot on; he’d need it to get up anyhow. He went down the hall to the kitchen but never made it.
He stood at the door with the crystal knob (“the biggest diamond full of rainbows”). From the cased opening in the hallway, he could just see into the foyer through the living room. His hackles rose when he saw his briefcase open; once on the table, it stayed there and stayed shut. The stack of papers lay within, but the wrinkled photo was gone. Going over, he then saw his front door cracked open and went to shut it and call 911, but then he saw a bit of glitter in the light entering the foyer.
There on the hardwood floor lay a green sequin.
Mack straightened and went cold. He had set the briefcase down to check on the driver of the wrecked truck. But still–
He turned the knob. The iridescent dragon stood at the foot of the bed. The comforter was rearranged, neatened, and straightened with the doll in the green sequined dress at one of the pillows. Mack watched her sleep and chided himself for an old habit that percolated through his fatigue and confusion and wonder as he watched for the rise and fall of her little plastic chest.
With much effort the dragon turned its head to consider Mack, who stared from him to the doll, to the bureau. Mack made himself look there, really look there for the first time in a long time at the photo in its silver frame. He didn’t want to feel them again, to reach out; that was already happening again inside.
He put the single green sequin in the dust at the base of the frame and went over to the bed and sat there. He caught the doll endeavoring not to notice him and pretending to sleep as she tucked the folded-up photo from Mack’s briefcase under the pillow.
“It’s all right now,” he said.
Her head turned, the brunette curls whispering over the cloth of the pillowcase.
“Thank you,” she mouthed, then with a flutter closed her eyes.
Mack noticed a dimple in the plastic near one corner of her mouth, then left the bedroom and made sure to leave the door cracked as he made his way back to his own bed and found some dreams he’d lost once sleep returned. The last thought rolling through his mind before he drifted off was that, yes, tomorrow would be as good a day as any to do something a long time coming.