It was a typical Saturday afternoon for me, browsing through the thrift shop on Comm Ave, looking for old books and records, when I spied a familiar face out of the corner of my eye.
“Barbie?” I asked tentatively.
She rolled over in the toy bin where she lay and looked up at me. “Oh–hi,” she said as she brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes. “It . . . it’s been a long time.”
She looked like she’d seen the wrong end of too many little bottles of gin, her skin faded from the perfect flesh tone I remembered to a shade that recalled jaundice. Probably the result of long hours under fluorescent lights on the one hand, and the bright glare of the sun through the front window on the other.
“How’ve you been?” I asked.
“Oh, you know–hangin’ in there.” Just barely, I figured. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for old records, Benny Moten, Andy Kirk–Kansas City jazz. And books–George Ade, Ring Lardner, you know, Midwestern smart alecks.”
Bennie Moten by R. Crumb
A laugh issued from her oh-so-delicate little mouth. “I guess you can take the boy out of the Queen City of the Prairies, the Gateway to the Ozarks, the State Fair City . . .”
“Don’t forget the County Seat of Pettis County, Missouri,” I added out of a sense of completeness.
” . . . but you can’t take the–”
“Right,” I said, cutting her off. The BC-USC game starts at three.
In her prime
There was an awkward silence as she batted her lashes, heavy with mascara, and looked away, at the streets of the student ghetto out the window.
“So . . . find anything?” she said finally.
“Nope–no luck today,” I said. Again–stiff silence, both of us at a loss for words. “How’s Ken?” I asked finally–bad move. Old lawyers’ rule–never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Old lawyer should have followed it.
Ken, after the breakup
She snorted with contempt. “Haven’t seen him in years. He can go shit in his hat for all I care.”
O-kay. I felt sorry that I’d brought back painful memories and hurt her little plastic heart, and I decided to try and make it up to her.
“Say–you want to get out of here and get a cup of coffee?”
She looked surprised–I guess years of rejection, of being picked over, picked up and thrown back into the bin had taken their toll.
“Well, sure,” she said after a moment. “I’m not really dressed . . .”
“You look fine,” I said. “Everyone dresses more casually these days.”
“Okay,” she said tentatively. “You’ll have to pay . . .”
“Sure–it’s on me.”
“What is this guy’s game?”
“No–I mean to take me out of here.”
“Right, right,” I said. Obviously a touchy subject. Lincoln freed the slaves, but he did nothing for figureheads of a line of Mattel-brand dolls and accessories. “How much are you?”
She turned away, and I thought I detected a sniffle. “Sign’s up there,” she said, burying her face in a Beanie Baby.
Fifty cents–so that’s how far she’d fallen. Stay upbeat, I told myself–laughter, like herpes, is contagious.
“No problem–come on, let’s blow this pop stand!” I said with enthusiasm.
We checked out and headed down to the Starbucks on the corner. I trotted her up to the register they way I used to move her around the Barbie Dream House when forced to play with my sisters in order to get them to toss a football with me.
“No foam vanilla latte for . . . Barbie?”
“What’ll you have?” I asked.
“I like my coffee like I like my men . . .” she purred, showing signs of her old good nature for the first time now that she was out of the dismal confines of the thrift shop.
“Bold, with flavor notes of hazelnut?”
“Tall, with extra foam?”
“No . . .”
“Black, with . . .”
“No! Bitter–like you!”
It was my turn to have my feelings hurt, I guess. “That was the old me,” I said, and from the look on her face I could tell she knew she’d wounded me, if only a little.
“Sorry–you used to be awfully sarcastic,” she said.
“Yeah, I know, but having kids changed me. I didn’t want to infect them with my warped view of the world. I wanted them to look for the good in people.”
“I’m sure you’re a good dad.”
“Of course, they’re hopelessly naive, but life will knock that benighted crap out of them. How’s . . .” I stopped myself before I stepped in it again.
“Skipper?” she said, picking up the thread.
“I don’t hear from her much,” she said as she turned her head with a far-off look in her eye.
“Yeah, sisters are like that . . .”
“She wasn’t my sister,” she said bitterly, whipping her head around to face me squarely.
She looked down at her cup and hesitated before she spoke. “That’s what Mattel wanted you to think,” she said. “She was Ken’s love child. Then he dumps me for Midge.”
I understood then why she’d been so negative when I mentioned his name.
“I . . . had no idea.”
“Nobody did,” she said. “We had a million-dollar marketing campaign to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.”
“Nobody can break your heart like a kid can,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” she said. She seemed to have regained her sense of self-possession, so I tried to turn the conversation back to happier topics. “Speaking of pulling the wool over something, you look like you keep yourself in great shape.”
She smiled–flattery will get you somewhere. “You would know,” she said.
I blushed. Dressing and undressing Barbie back in the day had been my introduction to the female anatomy. “Yeah–but I had to, remember.”
“Bullfeathers,” she snapped, but she was smiling. “You could’ve played ball with the Morris boys, or George Kuehn, or Billy Shue, or . . .”
“Okay–you got me. I . . . used to enjoy slipping on your stewardess outfit, and the MBA one . . .”
“The one with the floppy bow tie and the briefcase?” She threw her head back and laughed loud enough that a guy pretending he was writing a novel on his laptop two tables away glared at us.
“I used to pick those out, you know,” I said, smiling but a little embarrassed.
“Sure. It was easy shopping for you . . . I mean my sister. Every Christmas or birthday, just go to the toy store, grab something off the rack and you’re all set.”
“Oh, gawd,” she groaned. “Well, I guess I was in style for the times. Still, when I look back . . .”
“I know–it seems weird. Say . . .”
“You look like–and don’t take this the wrong way . . . it might be fun to go shopping again.”
She looked at me, sizing me up, one eyebrow raised, but still a trace of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
“That’s kind of a ‘couple’ thing to do, isn’t it?”
“And you’ve got a ring on your finger . . .”
“Right, but . . .”
“My wife won’t mind if I handle artificial boobs as long as they’re attached to a plastic body.”