Local Beef Chili w/Smoked Poblanos, Pepper Jack, Black Beans
Two nights later Mark and I were back at the Penny. I didn’t even think about my drink. I told Josh to bring me anything on the list. He explained that the Nikka Coffey he brought me was a Japanese grain whiskey, but I wasn’t really listening. The glass he set in front of me was the usual dark amber color; I could smell the sweetness of the liquor.
The squirrel and nut attack had been, as I said, two nights ago, although the squirrels had done nothing more than passively observe. Last night I spent the entire night in our bedroom. Sherry slept in the guest room again, claiming she hadn’t heard the nut bombast. I didn’t mention the squirrels or the child/doll. I decided to forgo my usual nightly perambulations. I had seen enough the night before to keep me from peering into the backyard with my flashlight, looking for trouble.
For trouble I had surely found.
I hadn’t slept much the night before. We have a cool-looking Federalist couch in our bedroom, which is where I tried to sleep. The back is to the window, so I wasn’t looking out. That was why I was sleeping on the couch. The bed faces the window. I didn’t want to see again what I had seen before.
“OK, tell me again what this rag doll looked like,” Mark said. I walked over to his house this morning to see how he was doing. After getting little help from his doctor, he’d consulted the Internet and found that washing his bug-bitten body with dandruff shampoo would take care much of his itching problem. It did. The various welts were fading. He’s an easy-going guy anyway, he wasn’t angry with me anymore.
“She looked like a rag doll when she bounced off the roof and fell into the yard, but when she started crawling toward me it was obvious this was no doll. She was definitely alive,” I said.
It’s not like I hadn’t been thinking about this girl-creature for the last couple of days. “Easier said than done, though I couldn’t tell you why it’s so hard to describe her.” I thought about it while I took a sip of my Japanese whisky. It tasted like a great bourbon even though Josh said it was a grain whisky. I didn’t know what the difference was. I could look it up, but I’ve got other things on my mind.
I went on. “She had short limbs, and looked around seven or eight-years old, though she would have been very small for her age. I’m not good at guessing the ages of children. She was black, as in African, with hair in braids or dreads. She looked very dirty.”
“Dirty because she’d been digging around under your house?”
That thought gave me no comfort. “I guess, though I’ve been trying to avoid that conclusion. There’s something else I’ve been trying to avoid. The reason I’ve been thinking of her as a rag doll, is because of a video I used to watch with my daughter Leah when she was little. It was an animated film called Raggedly Ann and Andy. In the film, the classic Raggedy Ann doll has lots of adventures. Leah loved it. She probably watched it fifty times, and I was there for most of those viewings. It was actually well done and not that painful to watch, even after you had most of the dialogue committed to memory. My backyard doll looked like Raggedy Ann, only a black version.”
I was speaking slowly because I didn’t really want to get to the next part. Mark waited patiently. He was drinking a sour beer, a style of brewing that was edging out IPAs in the hipster world.
“Go on,” he said.
“If you can, try to remember what a classic Raggedy Ann doll looks like. Red yarn for hair, buttons for eyes. A red triangle for a nose. Thick hands. But in this case, the doll was African.”
“Got it. Your classic rag doll, only black.” He took out his cell phone and began keying in text.
“Yes. Here’s the thing,” I said. “It was night. I had been drinking. There were a hundred fucking squirrels staring at me, and walnuts were slamming down on my house. A child/doll body had just bounced off the roof into my back yard and started crawling toward me. I wish I could say I couldn’t really see her, but I could.”
“Of course you could see her, you were using the World’s Most Powerful Flashlight.” He was making a joke, but I wasn’t smiling. He turned his phone toward me to show me a picture. It was a photograph of a doll, a black doll. It certainly resembled the child who had fallen in my back yard, only this was clearly a doll. Not a real person. “They’re called Topsy dolls,” he said. “Named after the little slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They were popular in the late nineteenth century.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t really focusing on the picture. I was focusing on the scene in my head. I went on.
“When she reached about two feet from the base of the house, she looked up at me. All told she was about five feet away from where I was standing. I could see her face quite clearly. Here’s the thing, Mark, the really terrible thing. This was no doll, this was a real person. Her nose was a little red triangle because it had been cut off. Her mouth looked made of thread because her lips had been sewn shut, very crudely, with thick black thread. Up-and-down stiches, like a railroad track.” Mark had his beer half-lifted toward his mouth. “And she had no fingers. She had Raggedy Ann hands because all her fingers had been cut off. And here’s the worst part, Mark.” I leaned across the table and spoke quietly. I wasn’t sure if I was trying to keep anyone else from hearing, or I didn’t want to hear what I was saying.
“She smiled at me, Mark, not that she could really smile, not with her lips sewn shut. But she gave it a try nonetheless, and it was truly horrible.”
Josh appeared at our side.
“You want another one?”
“Sure. You pick,” I said, just wanting to get rid of him. Josh turned to Mark.
“I’ll have whatever he’s having,” Mark said. “No more beer.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute while Josh went back behind the bar.
“You don’t look so good,” I said. Mark had gone a faint grey color. He nodded. Josh came back and put two glasses on the table. “Four Roses,” he said. We each picked up a glass and drank. After a few more minutes of silence, Mark started looking a little better. He leaned toward me, the way I had leaned toward him. When he spoke it was just loud enough for me to hear.
“Tell me you were drunk. Or that this is one of your jokes.”
I shook my head. He sat back in his chair.
“It’s all true?”
“True? True? Are you asking me if I’m bullshitting you?”
“Have you told Sherry any of this?”
“No. And not because I don’t think she’ll believe me. I’m not going to tell her because I think she will believe me. I don’t think there’s any physical harm in it at this point. Even though I don’t understand it. She’ll just worry.”
“And rightly so,” Mark said. “No harm in it?” he asked, sarcastically. He shook his head. His voice was grim. Good old easygoing Mark. “OK, I’ve just got one question.” He turned his drink glass precisely one-quarter turn of a revolution and folded his hands in front of him.
“Just what the hell is next?”