I remember Pirate Percy. I was always kind of scared of him. He looked like he was built from parts of other dolls, real low-budget. His head was an old porcelain baby doll, looked like an antique that didn’t belong on the body.
Pretty Pie is the prettiest doll in Logan County -- hell, in the three-state area. She's the size of a real baby, with a heavy round head crowned with a curling lock of flaxen hair. Her soft fat cheeks are dusted with pink, while her rosebud lips purse for a little kiss.
When you lay her down on her back, her little eyelids fall closed, silky lashes coming to rest on her cheeks.
(She is, however, wide-eyed and alert all the rest of the time.)
There are two celluloid dolls for sale in the company store, smelly things with glaring eyes and horsehair wigs. The same two have been in stock for years; Handsome Joe Bernosky bought the third two Christmases back, but his son shot him in the throat that same night. The doll never made it into little Betty's hands.
No one else is spendthrift nor drunk enough to buy the other two. Most girls, if they have a doll, have a rag sack handed down from an older sister or young aunt. Shapeless things with inked-up faces and bits of mismatched yarn for hair, these dolls aren't anything to brag about, let alone show off. Many girls aren't all that entranced with baby dolls; they get enough of real babies they have to lug around and wipe clean and watch out for.
But Pretty Pie is different. June Inkler's daddy brought her all the way from Pittsburgh for June, but she's actually from Paris, France. In Europe.
Pretty Pie is pretty as, well, pie. She has a nightgown, a dress for day wear, and another for dress-up evenings. June Inkler takes her everywhere -- to church, to school, to the doctor. No one's about to tell June to leave the doll at home. June's will is formidable, her temper legendary, and her daddy practically owns this entire town and the next one over. Speak sidewise to his baby girl only if you feel like losing your job and the use of one or more limbs.
At night, tucked into feather-down and silk like the precious angels they are, June and Pretty Pie share all their secrets. June has seen things in the woods; Pretty Pie likes to play cinema star. Oftentimes, June falls asleep first, her forehead tipped against her doll's, but Pretty Pie continues talking in her dreams.
Once she wakes in the middle of the night, choking like she can't get enough air. Pretty Pie's face floats above hers, moon-bright and -huge. Her rosy lips open, sucking.
Donna does not belong here. She should not be here.
She is only here as Gordon's girlfriend, after all. You better believe her consciousness-raising group got up in arms about that. --You're more than his career! they said, --you deserve to be an equal.
He's here on a public television grant; he goes where the grant money leads. But she's supposed to be an "artist". She can make art anywhere. If she can't, then she maybe she's not an artist.
Here in the bowels of West Virginia coal country, well off US 52, she's never felt more out of place. It's only June but a haze hangs over the day, somehow brightens all the highlights while dulling and softening the shadows. She's lackadaisically browsing this small-town church rummage sale. It's full of sweaty people, women with hairstyles a decade out of date and brassieres that either point too sharply or sag entirely wearing housedresses gone near-transparent after years of washing and men in stained undershirts with greased back hair and swollen guts.
She can't understand anyone's accent and she doesn't know a holler from a crick. She's a hippie with long, clean hair parted in the middle and tucked behind her ears. Her sundress is Indian cotton and floats around her unshaven legs. (She stopped shaving four months ago and is slightly disappointed to have regrown only a prickly fuzz; she'd been hoping for an emphatic, unmistakable forest of hair.)
There's nothing here that she can stand. There's driftwood carved in the shape of guns; mildewed, incomplete sets of Reader's Digest condensed books; bright pink crocheted toilet paper covers, topped with branching squiggles and curlicues of more pink. They look like women's innards, shaken free from the body and turned inside out.
Donna shudders and tries to discreetly fan her skirt to cool off her legs. She looks around for Gordon -- it should be easy to spot his soft, curly hair amid all the oily ducktails and dishevelled beehives.
Someone speaks right in her ear: "'ello, purty lady, fancy bein' a pirate's wench?"
Donna nearly jumps out of her skin; she turns so quickly that her balance falters for a moment. Gordon is right there, holding a battered old rag doll up to his face and making it bounce.
She tries to laugh, but the shock still reverberates against the inside of her skin. "You really scared me."
"Sorry," Gordon says easily, letting the rag doll drop. "Any luck?"
She shakes her head. Pointing to the abandoned rag doll, she says, "What about him?"
"Nah, he's not Percy. He's too...floppy. Percy has to have a certain heft." Gordon waves his hand and turns away, as if that explains everything she needs to know. He always does this. He and Straub, the grant-holder, speak in shorthand all the time, as if they know more than anyone else, as if they've been vouchsafed more information and wisdom. They met at Synanon back in Los Feliz, and their conversations are peppered with references and names that escape Donna. Experimental social psychology, the limits of perception, Jungian reservoirs of fear and creativity.
They talk about their characters as if they're already here, as if the show simply pays tribute to preexisting personalities. Percy has heft, the Laughingstock needs more whimsy, and so on.
Honestly, if they want to play with their puppets and speak their secret languages, they're welcome to it. She doesn't know what they need her for.
For June's birthday, all the little girls and boys in her class, plus the ones above and below, put on a pageant. Although parents are invited, most daddies are in the mines and mommies are occupied at home. The audience consists of schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the floor of the largest classroom. Many hug their own dolls, lumpen and unlovely as they are.
Pretty Pie is the star of the show. Within the upended carton that serves as proscenium, all those saucer-eyed children arrayed below her, she is radiant. Mesmerizing.
She sings about secret places, amazing presents waiting to be unwrapped. She wants them to come exploring. She wants to give them everything they want.
Just reach out and tear it open! Rip off that skin, dig out those sweet treats.
Tongues and hearts, chubby little fingers and slick, plump livers. She wants them all, she'll eat them all up.
"For your talent, babe," Gordon says imploringly on the drive back to Branchland. His hand is on Donna's knee, sliding higher. "That's what I need you for. Who else can make Percy sing?"
The old lady with cat's eye glasses and big salt-and-pepper bouffant had sold them Percy for two dollars. "This one's real special," she'd said, yet handed the doll off to Gordon like it stung her palms. "Old-time baby dolls, you know, they often had candy for their hearts."
Gordon stabbed his finger at the doll's chest and looked up, grinning. "Something's in there!"
The doll is in the back seat, one eye open. The other lid is stuck half-closed over a swollen eyeball.
"You want him to sing?" Donna asks. She glances over her shoulder and tries not to wince at the doll's weird, wall-eyed glare.
"Like a bird," Gordon replies.
The next day, in her makeshift workshop, Donna puts Percy's new head in a vise. She has drawn guidelines for cutting his new jaw; she'll hinge it inside the cranial cavity with fishing line.
But first she has to open him up. She uses a fine-gauge bone drill and revs it in her hand; she cannot seem to move.
She shakes herself and switches her grip on the drill. Up and over, up the cheek, across the upper lip, back down. Easy as pie -- it's just a doll's empty head, old bisque and dust, nothing more.
She drills half an inch, then pauses.
When she puts the tip back to the doll's cheek, it sinks in, then hits something. The drill jumps, then bounces out of her hand and she ducks. Caught over the edge of the worktable, it spins on its cord, buzzing angrily.
Donna pulls herself up and eyes the doll. Half its chin is gone. Row after row of pencil-sharp teeth, obliquely-angled and glinting, is arrayed within. A dark, blunt thing, almost like a tongue, not quite a tongue, licks the front row of teeth. Lecherously, invitingly. Hungrily. It snags on one point, then spits blood at her.
The blood spatters in her eyes, down one cheek, sizzling almost delightedly.
Any ambitious Youtuber will tell you that the hook's the thing. Get them watching, then keep them.
Me, I'm going to be the Ghost in the Machine, offering reviews and commentary on games, Harajuku fashion trends, politics (if it ever stops boring me), and anything else that catches my eye. My real name's Joanie Hatfield and I live in Kenova, but who cares what I was? This is about who I want to be.
This is my sidekick and best pal, Heady Lamarr. (Get it? 'cause she's a just head!)
Say hi to the nice people, Heady.
She won't bite. Hard.