The summer I met Barbie Dahl I was twenty-three. I wore my hair in a ponytail and had a closet full of designer ripped-in-the-butt jeans. I pierced my left ear three times and changed the studs to diamonds, emeralds, or rubies, depending on the color of my shirt. No woman ever brought up the AIDS test when she leaned against the leather seats of my red Porsche. I could see the Charles River from my bedroom window. I had a fifty-inch TV and an Evian water cooler in my weight room.
I was out of college and free. I was planning to spend the summer working on my tan at Fenway Park, checking out any blonde female who bent over in shorts. I had already placed my first bet with Nick at the deli; I was sure the Sox would sweep the Yankees in July. I was also hoping to keep away from my father.
During my senior year at Boston University, the nightmares began. I dreamt that the minute I received my diploma, a long black limo pulled up, drove right through the auditorium, and knocked over all the other graduates. The door of the limo opened and a long arm reached out and yanked me into the back seat. My father was up front. I couldn’t see his face, but I smelled the perfume of a woman sitting next to him. He opened up a little sliding window and slipped me the keys to “The Business” — twenty-five keys to Rico Dry Cleaning, the largest dry-cleaning chain in New England. Then my father cut off my college ring and swallowed it. The limo drove to the nearest Rico Cleaners. The car stopped and somebody pushed me out into the gutter. As the limo drove away my father yelled, “Don’t screw things up.”
When I was a kid, I remember my father coming home smelling like Woolite, with band-aids on his fingers from safety-pin cuts. My father reminded me of a piñata: a fat, ballooned creature, jammed with treats and coins just out of my reach. He was always stuffing bills into my pockets. That was how all our arguments ended.
“Here, take this and get out of my sight already,” he’d yell, pushing money into my shirts and pants. I learned to keep my opinions to myself. I also wore clothes with lots of pockets.
He’d driven up to B.U. during my last semester to talk about my future. He cracked his knuckles as he spoke. “You gonna start out like I did. You gonna write the pink slips, tie the crap up inna bag, and throw it inna bin. Then you gonna learn the cleanin’ machines in the back wit’ the Marias. All’s you gotta know is ‘salsa’ is sauce and ‘vino’ is wine. Piece a cake.”
As my father marched around my room, flicking lint off his Armani suit with his diamond pinkie ring, I pictured myself lying in a casket with orange stickers that said “stain” stuck to my forehead. My tombstone would read, “Died in a Pressing Machine.”
“I gonna work your ass off. Coupla years you gonna thank me,” he said. Then he took out his wallet and stuffed some bills into my shirt pocket. Before he left he told me to get rid of my beard.
What could I do? The courses I took, like Physics for Poets and Tennis 101, hadn’t prepared me for much of a career. But I knew I had to come up with something, anything to keep me from spending the rest of my life as a zit under my father’s armpit. So I took his money and bought a computer and laser printer. Maybe I could be a writer. I read some of Hemingway’s short stories. I thought he was kind of cool. He got to fight bulls and hunt and he knew how to handle his women. Also, I knew that a writer hardly had to talk; he could always claim to be deep in thought. Women liked an air of mystery. I found that the girls I dated were impressed when I mentioned I was working on my novel. They thought it was “romantic” and “sensitive.” They were probably more impressed by my supply of drugs, as they never asked to see anything I had written. Which was good, because I never wrote anything.
But I knew I had a book inside me. Whole chapters and pages of dialogue would come to me in my dreams, or when I was drinking or running in the park. Sometimes I would actually sit in front of my writing machines. I’d close my eyes and wait for the magic to happen. My hands trembled, my cheeks felt like fireballs, and I sweated all over. I could feel the room grow smaller and smaller until I couldn’t breathe, then a friend would drop by to watch the Patriots or the phone would ring and I would be saved. My “book” became like an almost dried-up mosquito bite, not worth the effort to scratch.
I made it through senior year, moved into my apartment, and tried not to worry. I knew that Emily Dickinson had died before she became famous. I decided to concentrate on other things, like when the bill for my Stair Master would arrive, and how I would get my father to pay for it. I was thinking about this one day in June as I checked the mail slot in my door. Seeing that nothing had been stuffed through it, I opened the door to look around.
I saw a woman stretched out on my brownstone steps, leaning on her elbows with her head thrown back. Her hair was the color of corn, and frizzy like the edges of a scarf. She sat up, yawned, and raised her arms above her head, making me think of a yellow alley cat standing on its hind legs catching bits of sunshine in its mouth. I had never seen a woman up close who didn’t shave her arms or legs. I wanted to rub my face against all the hair on her body. I would start with her ankles and work my way up.
But then I saw my mail spread across her lap. She squinted up at me and pointed with her chin to my magazines.
“Nice choice of reading material. Great editorials,” she said. She picked up a magazine wrapped in brown paper and shielded her eyes from the sun. I tried to grab the magazine out of her hand, but it fell open to a photo spread of a woman roped up like a steer and flung over a horse’s back. I quickly shoved the magazine under the other mail I had picked up.
“You can tell a lot about a person by his mail,” she said. I skimmed over the perfect tiny nose and perfect tiny chin, because there was something behind her blue eyes, like a potion brewing, that demanded my full attention. She stood up and tugged her shorts down from where they had risen up her thighs. She met my stare as she hooked her thumbs under the back legs of her shorts and pulled her panties down, too.
“Like you must be rich, right? The gold American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Doesn’t it piss you off when they all bill you at the same time?” She shook the envelopes. “You must owe a lotta money to a lotta people.” She wiped the sweat between her breasts with her pinkie. Her halter top was the size of a wristband.
“Look, what do you want?” I finally exploded. “You go through people’s mail so you can come back and rob them? Here, I’ll save you the trip. Take my money and go sleep on someone else’s stoop.” I pulled out my wallet and waved a dollar in the air.
“Fuck you!” The words singed my cheeks like she had thrown a cigarette. “I don’t need your money!” She turned away and stomped down the steps. Then she gave me the finger.
“Who the hell are you?” I stammered.
The anger behind her eyes suddenly vanished. She climbed up the steps by twos and stuck out her hand. “Barbie Dahl. I know. My parents had a sense of humor.”
Up close, I noticed her teeth were uneven and a little too big for her mouth. “I didn’t think you’d be the ponytail type. Or have such cute buns,” she said.
I found myself grinning like an adolescent who had just gotten his braces taken off. I stuck out my hand. “I’m Brent. Brent Rico.”
“Yeah, I already know that.”
I stood there, looking at her, rocking back and forth. I would have whistled had I known how. “So, do you want to look through my garbage now?”
“No,” she said, “but I could use your bathroom.”
A few minutes later, Barbie Dahl opened my refrigerator and complained I had nothing to eat. She told me she was living with some friends until she could save enough money to find her own place. But the problem was that the exterminators were coming to her friends’ apartment, so she had to leave for a few days. The bug spray made her puke and there wasn’t any place to do that in private.
“Roaches in the kitchen I can handle. Look, we all gotta eat. But sharin’ the bathroom with them is somethin’ else,” she complained. She looked through my CD collection and said that Jim Morrison was killed by the CIA. “I saw it on a soap once. The feds shot up this guy with somethin’ so he died and it looked like he had a heart attack.” She tried lifting some of my weights. “Jeopardy” was on in the background and we both thought Oklahoma was the capital of Texas. When she typed out her name on my computer, I told her I was a writer. She said if I was, the letters “I” and “E” would be rubbed off the keyboard because those were the letters that were used the most.
Barbie Dahl told me she had a job sweeping up people’s hair at a unisex shop on Commonwealth Avenue, right up the block from one of my father’s cleaning stores. “The job’s OK if you don’t mind findin’ hair in your lunch.”
I decided I had nothing to lose by letting her use my couch for a few days. She went to get her things from her friends’ apartment and came back in a few hours with a knapsack, a pile of Tennessee Williams’s plays tied up with string, and a black eye.
“If you say one word about it, I’ll kick your balls inside out,” she said in a low voice. But by the time I had wrapped ice in a sock for her, she was smiling as if nothing had happened. She closed her eyes and lay on her stomach on the rug in my study. I straddled her legs and started to massage her back.
“Listen, I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Last time I had sex with someone, all the parts of his face melted together like hot wax.” And then she fell asleep.
I ran a few miles by the Charles River around midnight and howled at the moon. I had some cold Chinese and watched reruns of “Jake and the Fatman.” I dialed 347-Bush and spent forty-five dollars listening to a woman named Wanda moan about how she wasn’t getting any. I actually asked her where she lived. Then I drank myself to sleep. I knew it couldn’t be good news when my doorbell rang at six the next morning, about an hour after I had fallen asleep with my Red Sox cap on and a chopstick in my mouth. I knew I smelled like an elephant who had sprayed himself with a trunkful of beer.
“You look like shit,” my father said as I opened the door. I used to think my father was a ventriloquist because he never moved his lips when he talked. When he was angry, you could see the veins in his neck wiggle and his jaw jut out at right angles, but he had good control of those lips. My father’s latest girlfriend, Moxie, gave me her toy poodle to hold while she made herself comfortable on the couch. Moxie always smelled faintly of tuna fish because she worked at a sushi bar. She also wore a bone in her hair. But when I looked at her long, thin legs, I had to hand it to my father. He was always looking under her short skirts like a giraffe nuzzling up a tree for leaves. My father liked his women dumb. The only smart woman he had been involved with had been my mother, who had left when I was seven.
I had a quick flashback to the day a big U-Haul truck came to our house and took the dining-room table, fancy dishes, and my mother away. I ran out into the street, waving the permission slip to the Pumpkin Farm my mother had forgotten to sign. I was the only one in Mrs. Handler’s class who didn’t get to go. I spent the entire day with the first-graders who laughed at me because I kept falling off their small chairs. I couldn’t eat pumpkin pie for years without throwing up.
“Moxie here and me are goin’ to Vegas coupla days. I want you should take care the Kenmore Square place for me. Matty, my manager there, you seen him at the Christmas party, he’s havin’ some kind of bypass thing. Be good for you. You keep an eye on things. Anybody get a problem you handle it. You just gotta watch out for all the Marias runnin’ the machines in the back. They start missin’ days and talkin’ ’bout their sick cousin, you pick up the phone and say you’re talkin’ to la migra. Then, when I get back, I set you up nice, for good. Maybe the store on Commonwealth Avenue. Maybe Kenmore Square. I’ll see. Right now, I got other things to do, right, hot cakes?”
Moxie looked at him with liquid puppy eyes. If she had a tail she would have wagged it. She undid the top button of my father’s shirt and loosened his collar.
“Pop,” I said quickly, as Moxie took little bites of my father’s neck, “I haven’t decided about going into the business.”
My father stood up and laughed. “And who are you? Since when do you decide? Wise-ass. You don’t decide nothin’. Not when I’m payin’ the bills.”
He took a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose, and handed the handkerchief to Moxie.
“The decision’s been made.” My father dropped the keys to the store on my glass coffee table. He hitched up his pants and tucked in his shirt. “Bobby’s waitin’ outside with the limo. So don’t screw things up too bad, OK? You need some money? Here,” he said, stuffing some bills into my sweat-suit pocket. “Go getta haircut.”
I closed the door and my bare feet felt something wet. Moxie’s dog had peed on the rug. I was relieved that I hadn’t. The bathroom door opened and Barbie Dahl stepped out, dripping water and wearing nothing but a towel — around her head.
“Aren’t you gonna see how much your old man gave you?” she asked. Between my hangover, my father’s performance, and her wet 36 C’s, I could do little more than take some deep breaths and hope I wouldn’t faint. Barbie Dahl took the money out of my pocket and counted out loud to one thousand.
Later that day, after running errands and picking up some food, I found Barbie Dahl lying naked on the living-room couch. She was watching “Father Knows Best” and sucking on a strand of her hair.
“God, I love this show,” she sang out. “It makes me feel so fucking normal!” I stood there with the grocery bags in my hands. I could taste her body in my mouth as I stared at her. I dropped the bags on the floor and some cans rolled out. I hoped I wouldn’t have to take another midnight run through the park or listen to Wanda the whisperer again tonight. I stepped in front of the television screen and unzipped my pants.
“Another rerun?” she yawned. “Forget it. Whatever you’re showin’ I seen before.”
I grabbed her wrist. “What the hell do you want from me?”
Barbie Dahl jumped up from the couch, picked up an ashtray, and threw it at my head. “What do I want from you?” she yelled. “What do you want?” She grabbed me by the hand and pushed me down in front of my computer. She stared hard at me and then suddenly smiled, as if the broken ashtray on the floor had gotten there by itself.
“Listen, Brent,” she continued, “I’ll tell you a story. I’ll tell you a story ’bout a girl named Barbie Dahl who can be anythin’ you dream her to be.” She moved a chair near the window and looked out. She spoke mechanically, hypnotically, the words coming from a place behind her eyes as she moved her lips.
“My Daddy was in the construction business but I never saw him build anythin’. Mostly he broke things, like all the furniture in the house. When Daddy would start throwin’ chairs and tables around, my mother would grab me and we’d run upstairs and lock ourselves in the bathroom. My mother would sit there and smoke cigarettes until the mirrors fogged up. I felt like someone was shovin’ a fist of smoke down my throat. Once I saw her put out a cigarette by rubbin’ it against her ankle. She didn’t even move. Another time I found my mother sittin’ naked in the empty bathtub, holdin’ a mirror in her hand and pluckin’ out her eyelashes. When Daddy lost his job he just started drinkin’ earlier in the day. I’d sneak into the livin’ room and my father would be sleepin’ on the floor, holdin’ the iron poker from the fireplace in his hands. My mother spent more and more time in the upstairs bathroom smokin’ and since I didn’t know how to fix anythin’, we ate at a kitchen table that leaned to one side. I remember watchin’ TV on a set that cut people’s heads off ’cause there was this big crack runnin’ across the top of the screen.”
Barbie Dahl waved her hand in the air and said in a sing-song voice, “Teacher, I can’t learn how to tell time because all the clocks in our house are broken.”
She crossed her legs and rested her chin on her hand. “When the social worker came to the house, she told me I had to live with my Nana. My Nana was a nice lady, ’cept her eyes were bad. She was always cookin’ up somethin’ weird ’cause she couldn’t see the labels on the cans. But she let me sleep in her bed with all my dolls and stuffed animals. My Nana held her breath sometimes when she snored, so my dolls and animals and I all took turns stayin’ awake to make sure she wouldn’t stop breathin’ for good and die. It worked. For a while, anyway.”
Barbie Dahl walked toward me and tapped the top of my computer. “Write this: my Nana had a great house. All the clocks had faces.”
So I did. As if they were possessed by some power I could not name, my fingers flew across the keyboard and pages and pages came out. I wrote about a hairy blonde girl whose mother came to visit her with different boyfriends — bald, red-faced men with potbellies, who smiled as if their underwear was too tight. I wrote about a woman who never bought her daughter clothes that fit and sometimes laughed and laughed until she fell down and nothing more came out. I wrote about a little boy who got chickenpox and loved it, because his father gave the housekeeper the week off and he took care of his son, playing hundreds of games of gin rummy. I wrote about the tablets of medicine his father dissolved in water with his pinkie, his diamond ring moving around and around, cupping his son’s chin gently as the boy drank the red liquid from the spoon.
I felt like I had left my body and was hovering in a corner of the ceiling, watching someone else type. I was still typing, even as Barbie Dahl stopped talking and left the room. When it was dark, she came up to me hugging a pillow against her chest. She held out her hand and whispered, “Would you like to share some darkness with me?”
That night, after I had carefully tucked the first chapter of my manuscript in my desk drawer, I said, “I have to tell him, you know. I have to tell him I’m not getting into the limousine.”
Barbie Dahl pulled the blanket up to her chin and nodded. I could see her eyeteeth in the faint moonlight as she smiled.
“Why me?” I asked after a while. “Why did you pick me?”
She pulled the blanket up to her nose and said in a muffled voice, “Does it matter? When you get to a fork in the road, you take it.”
I thought she had fallen asleep until I heard her whisper, “Hey, Brent, will you wake me if I stop breathin’?”
I stroked her hair, which looked like yellow spider mums across the pillow. Then I thought of my father and I hugged her from behind like a spoon.
While my father was away, I didn’t go into Rico Cleaners except to take the phone off the hook and put a sign in the window saying Closed for Renovations. Every night Barbie Dahl moved a chair to the window and I sat at my computer. Her voice traveled through time, to faraway lives lived or dreamed. I didn’t know. I typed fast, afraid that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start again. Sometimes, I wrote long after Barbie Dahl had stopped talking. She slept with the blankets pulled up to her chin, her too-big teeth biting her lower lip. As I watched her sleep, I began to think those teeth were almost as perfect as her chin and nose and downy-haired skin. A week went by and I needed two drawers to keep all the pages of my manuscript.
Then one morning, my doorbell rang. My father charged into the living room like a bull, his chest moving up and down, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “You screwed things up. I tol’ you not to screw things up.”
My father threw his keys on my glass coffee table, his black eyes dark as asphalt. I smelled scotch on his breath as he hit me twice across the face with his open hand. Then he grabbed me by the neck of my shirt, stuffed some bills into my pocket, and pushed me away. “You gonna go back there tomorrow. Six a clock. I gonna pick you up in the limo at quarter to.”
“Tell him, Brent! Tell him where to shove his goddamn stores!” Barbie Dahl stood behind me, her hands in balled fists at her side. She picked up a poker from the fireplace and shot it at my father’s head. He stepped over it on his way out the door.
That night, Barbie Dahl reached for me in bed. Her voice sounded as if she were underwater, like a record played on the wrong speed. “Use me, Brent. Use me. I’m your Barbie Dahl. Don’t you want to play with me?” She moved her hands to the right parts of my body but wouldn’t kiss my lips. In the moonlight that fell across us, her face looked as plastic as a doll’s.
The next morning, she was gone before I got up. I waited for her outside on my steps, until it got too dark to read my mail. I looked for her at the unisex shop on Commonwealth Avenue, but they said nobody by that name had ever worked there.
September came around and the Red Sox won the pennant. I hired a personal trainer who looked like Brigit Nielson. I bought some Armani suits and got my hair cut and moussed. I moved my writing machines to a back closet to make room for my Stair Master.
Before I knew it, a few years had passed and I bought a house in Hyannisport and a second home in Palm Springs. Pop retired but I still called him long distance from the limo to tell him I wasn’t “screwin’ things up” with the old and new stores.
I took my son, Brent, Jr., to work with me the other day. He asked me where my bed was. He said that before Mommy left she told him this was where I slept. He looks just like me. I couldn’t make his birthday party because my meeting with the lawyers ran over, so I sent him to Disneyland with his nanny. He wanted to meet Mickey Mouse. He asked me if he had enough money in his piggy bank to buy him so he could live in our house until Mommy came back. I told him anything was negotiable, just ask Grandpop, and I stuffed a dollar in the pocket of his overalls.
The last time we visited Pop on the coast, he was recovering from his second heart attack. He looked much thinner. He pinched the nanny on her behind and told her that her legs weren’t good for his heart. He bounced Brent, Jr., around on his lap and showed him off to his card-playing friends around the pool. One day I found them napping on a lounge chair, their arms and legs wrapped around each other. Brent, Jr., was wearing my father’s sunglasses and a make-believe diamond pinkie ring.
And Barbie Dahl? I think of her when I’m in a florist and see pots of yellow spider mums or when I catch a rerun of “Father Knows Best.” I imagine her mixing an artist’s paints or turning the pages of music on top of a baby grand, or steadying a needle for someone trying to weave his dream, someone more deserving than I.
Brent, Jr., likes me to tell him stories, especially the ones about the talking yellow doll who slept with the blankets over her nose. I’m going to buy him a computer. Maybe someday he’ll write some of his own.