When Grandpa leaves the room, I begin collecting the dolls. Their display stands leave polished discs in the dusty shelves, crop circles burned between items furry with dust: the box holding Grandpa’s Korea War medal; a 35-years-of-service plaque from Western Electric; a dried-out air-freshening cone. Upright they go into a blue milk crate, American Girls casting polite expressions in every direction. My father’s tall, thin figure keeps watch for Grandpa from the entryway, making sure he doesn’t amble back in to find us stealing the dolls Grandma had left behind. Dad points to a doll veiled in the shadows of the same plastic ficus you’ll find in every apartment at Hillcrest Assisted Living. It isn’t fair, I scowl, six is bad enough, why all seven? But he shrugs and twists his head and bounces his eyebrows. Mom wants them gone. She says it will be better to take them all at once, and while he’s not looking; he might not even notice. If I hesitate long enough I might get caught, might have to return the dolls to their stations while my mother explains her savagery. But she’s got Grandpa in the other room talking about his coins, a topic he’s never willfully retired.
My parents are in their early sixties, met late in life and didn’t have me until most of their friends were becoming empty-nesters. When they walk the Hillcrest halls on their own, they’re sometimes mistaken for residents; that’s why my father holds open the front door and whispers, “Thanks, sweetie,” as I pass. Out I go, up the hall that smells like Band-Aids, down the grand staircase that the residents can’t use, that’s just a cavernous reminder of the freedom they can’t exercise. I take the steps two at a time, hustle outside and slide the box into the back of the van. Then to run back, say goodbye and get on the road before Grandpa wises up. Hurry up hurry up, the faster the better.
Forty-five minutes later, we’re back home. The answering machine is blinking. Grandpa’s missing his dolls.
“They’re all gone,” he says, and I can hear the clench in his jaw. “The nurse doesn’t know where they are. I didn’t touch them.”
Dad slides the stolen goods onto the kitchen counter. Mom deletes the message and pivots to face us. A tight fist settles on her hip.
“It’s too late. It’s done,” she says.
I look up at Dad. He’s making that face everyone hates, that cockeyed puffy-lipped frown politicians flex when they admit to their affairs. Dad’s guilty as an accessory, just like me, but he’s acting all glum because I’m on my own, he can’t side against my mother.
“I don’t get why you’re being so mean,” I say. Mom turns her rage toward me, and I think I hear Dad sigh out through his nose.
Mom coughs up a laugh, just enough to make it clear she thinks I’m being stupid. She’s never liked explaining herself; she prefers to act on impulse and answer to nobody. Grandma’s been gone for two years — two years of turning a blind eye, until Mom decides overnight that the dolls are not a healthy way to cope.
“He’s talking to them, Laurie,” she says, as if this is news. “He’s a grown man talking to dolls all day long.”
From behind my mother, one of the dolls angles over the edge of the crate. She stares straight at me, her painted face conveying either shock or ignorance — the expressions become what I want them to be. I imagine how Grandpa might see their faces, how the years might have transformed them. Their shock when Grandma had first set them up around the living room, and Granda had teased them as “funny-looking houseplants.” And then later, when Grandma was gone and his kids were too busy, their eagerness to listen, their unwavering interest. How their eyes never drooped when Grandpa explained the components of an electrical circuit.
I remind Mom of the Jesus painting and the pictures of Grandma, things we left behind even though he speaks to them daily. I want to know why those are okay but dolls cannot be tolerated.
“One’s not normal, the others are,” she yells. “Now shut the hell up. Go to your room.”
A few minutes later there’s a knock at my door, and Dad slips in. He sits down on my bed.
“You need to cut your mom a break,” he says softly. “It’s not easy what she’s going through. She’s only trying to do what’s best for your grandfather.”
“She’s not doing it for him,” I say. “She’s embarrassed.”
“She’s trying to protect him.” He cups his hand over my knee. “You’ll go through the same thing someday.”
He moves to the door and says that dinner will be here in a few minutes. I roll onto my side and stare at the collection of stuffed animals I’ve piled into the bowl of a wicker papasan. They huddle together like an oversized family trying to fit into the tight frame of a picture. I can’t remember the last time I touched any of them. Mostly they just sit there ignored, vacant apartments for dust mites and lice that seem as useless to a fifteen-year-old as they are important.
Then the doorbell rings and I go downstairs.
Mom pulls Chinese takeout boxes from their plastic sacks, arranges them in the middle of the table between plates and forks. Dad is pouring milk into glasses lined beside the observant crate of dolls. I take my seat around the table and serve myself from the nearest box, passing it to the left. I decide to let someone else decide when it’s okay to talk. When Mom exhales, I look up.
“I needed some comfort food,” she says. Dad slips his hand into a bag and pulls out three fortune cookies, slides one to each of us. Mom nods at me to open mine.
I crack the cookie and slip out the paper. “You will receive a gift of great responsibility,” I read. “Does this mean you’re buying me a car?”
They both laugh. Dad shakes his head. “I think you got the wrong fortune cookie,” he says.
Mom bursts out laughing; things are back to normal. Then the phone rings. Mom and Dad look at each other as if to hold one another in their seat. They let it ring on to the answering machine.
“Patty?” asks a trembling voice. Mom lowers her eyes. She pushes away her fortune cookie, props her elbow on the table and digs her chin into her fist. “Patty, all of your mother’s dolls are gone. I’ve looked everywhere.” He seems to wait for someone to say something. “I know I didn’t move them. The nurse won’t help me find them.”
Dad slips his hand behind Mom’s back. After a long silence and without saying goodbye, Grandpa hangs up. Mom slides out her chair, the feet groaning against the wood floor. She stands up, deletes the message and disappears upstairs. Dad watches her and then turns to me.
“He’ll forget about it soon,” he says. “Go ahead and finish your plate.” Then he gets up and goes after Mom. When I’ve eaten enough to not feel hungry, I pick up my plate and scrape it into the trash. Dad comes down and grabs both of their plates, dumps the food and sets them in the sink. I pick up the boxes and am scraping their contents into plastic containers when Mom comes back downstairs. She moves directly toward the medicine cabinet and starts pulling out plastic pill bottles. The pills are placed on the countertop in two separate piles. They’re mostly vitamins and supplements, but since Dad’s minor stroke last year she’s made a habit of managing their health through medications. She turns an empty orange bottle upside down and slaps it on the counter.
“We’re out of your Quinapril again,” she says to my dad. He gives a gentle shrug.
“I’ll get a refill in the morning,” he says. Mom raises an eyebrow.
“You’re supposed to take them twice a day.” Dad ignores her, starts setting the plates in the dishwasher. She twists toward the garage door and scrapes the car keys off the counter.
“Patty–” he says, standing up straight.
“I’ll get them in the morning. It’s no big deal. I’ll be fine.”
“The doctor said to take them twice a day.” She slips her feet into her boots.
“Hey,” he says, finally showing a bit of cold resistance. He steps in closer to cut me out of the conversation. “You know you’re not supposed to drive at night.”
Now I see he’s not just cutting me out. He’s shielding me, because he knows how Mom gets when her own liberties are challenged. He need not mention her cataract and the surgery she refuses, or the halo that clouds the right side of her vision–bicyclists included–and how she wouldn’t be as lucky to only clip the next one at a low speed. All of that is right beneath the surface: you can’t discuss her own safety without implicating the threat she poses to others, if only because her conscience won’t let her.
“It’s just to the grocery pharmacy,” she says. “How many times have I driven that? You need to take them twice a day. You have to take better care of yourself.”
“Then I’ll go get them,” Dad offers. But she refuses, puts the keys behind her back.
“I don’t need you to tell me what I can and can’t do.”
She slams the door behind her, and Dad crosses his arms and leans against the counter, simmering as the garage door opens; the van revs to life and fades into silence. When Mom is long gone, he scoops the pills off the counter and swallows them one by one. I ask him how he can take pills without water. He shrugs.
“It gets easier the more you do it,” he says. He invites me into the living room to watch a movie. I ask him what he’ll do about Mom, and he says it’s not up to him.
“But why doesn’t she listen to you?” I ask. Dad shoves off from the counter, pulls down a glass and fills it to the brim with milk. It’s the time in the evening when he’s accustomed to pouring himself a beer, but he’s given up alcohol since the stroke. He downs the whole glass without taking a breath.
“Well, Laurie,” he says, and that’s it for a long time. He’s twirling the film of milk pooling in the bottom of the glass. “People are stubborn.”
His long legs stride past me and out of the kitchen, past the box that hasn’t been touched since he carried it inside. The dolls stare off in every direction. If they could, they’d whistle and twiddle their thumbs. They know it’s none of their business. They’ve seen it all before.