I’m wading through the flotsam of my kids’ bedroom, mining the piles for dirty socks to wash, when a foreign object pierces the bottom of my foot. I fall against my daughter’s toddler bed, landing on the floor with a gasp of pain.
As I massage my injury, I scan the floor for its source. Judging from the searing sting, it ought to be a rattlesnake that bit me, or perhaps a scorpion. The culprit is, of course, a doll. She smiles up at me with demure sexuality, the kind of willing plaything that looks like she’s had a few ribs removed to accommodate her breast implants, whose appendages are forever extended in beauty pageant spikes of death.
“Slut,” I hiss at her.
She is unperturbed.
No reasonable human can live this way. Surrounded by a blast radius of doll parts and soiled underpants, I examine the bottom of my foot: definite indentation, skin remarkably intact. I listen to the sounds in the house, and hear only the singing of a forlorn dinosaur who has been abandoned by his father. The triplets are safely occupied with an animated musical they inexplicably adore.
Not only is their room in a state of unattractive disarray, it is now proven to be unsafe. It is my duty to make our home safe for our adorable triplet daughters, is it not? It’s up to me to cull their toys, guide them in a more orderly direction, instill in them values of aesthetic simplicity as I lovingly encourage them to reject all things consumeristic, no matter how much they might despise me for it.
I have until the movie ends – about 20 minutes.
Seized with purpose, I tiptoe to the kitchen to retrieve a black trash bag and slink back to their room. I gather every dismembered doll I can find until the bottom of the bag looks like a repository for medical waste. Some of the carnage includes mermaid tails of pink, green, and purple – eerie in their stillness.
This feels so good I dive into a wholesale purge, doing away with stuffed bunnies crusted with baby snot, cracked tiaras and magic wands, chewed upon spongy letters.
I fling open the closet doors and, in a frenzied lust, reach for the fluffy dresses that no sensible mother would allow on her child’s body, the kind of frufru frock given to children only by sadistic elder relatives. These items shrivel into unrecognizable mats of melted tulle if you stuff them into the dryer, and that’s what I did to the last batch, hoping they would be ruined and out of my life forever.
But then one of the girls, the one with charming dimples she employs as weapons, opened the dryer mid-cycle to discover the mangled cadaver of a dress, and wore it everywhere for a month, looking like a Dickensian orphan. She relinquished it only when she received another tulle monstrosity generously supplied by the same relative when she learned of my “mistake.” This time I’ll take the dresses to the thrift store where they can vex some other poor woman. Into the trash bag they go!
With triumphant resolve I finally turn to the shelving unit where reside dozens of lunatic “educational” toys that play the same songs repeatedly until they fade into unearthly ululations. These are gifts from Grandpa, his revenge for my postponement of his grandfatherhood until he’d reached brittle old age. Goodbye Read Along Lucy! So long Number-Bot! Hasta la vista Mother Goose Caboose. Never again will your cyborg droning hector my tattered nerves!
My husband, sauntering by on his way to the bathroom, pauses to watch as I carefully guide Mother Goose Caboose into the garbage bag, keeping her perfectly level so as not to awaken the demon that lives within. The bitch has no off switch. He shakes his head. “You’ll regret this.”
“No I won’t,” I say.
“Remember LadyBug?” he asks with a raised index finger.
“Shut up,” I growl.
He grins and enfolds himself in the womb of the bathroom – his last refuge.
I accidentally nudge Read Along Lucy and her tremulous soprano launches into a rendition of Goosey Gander.
I flash back to the time when my children were newborns and my father asked respectfully, “What kinds of things can I buy them?”
How considerate! How kind of him to ask! I said, “No electronic toys, please. I want their early years to be naturalistic.”
He smiled, and we turned our attention back to the delicious triplet infants as they slobbered on their icy chew toys.
Ever since, almost as if the man despised me, he arrives for each visit toting giant shopping bags brimming with “educational toys.” His face lights up with anticipatory joy at his grandchildren’s frenzied unwrapping of the kind of gifts forbidden by their draconian mother.
Once the booty is wrested from its packaging, often causing injury, usually to me, all three children begin playing, and the air is filled with cloying beeps and whistles. My father and I look on in tortured silence. The toys’ robot voices chip at my nerves in maddening cadence with my mental list of all the ways my father disappointed me in childhood.
“I thought we said no electronic toys,” I say through my teeth.
“What?” he asks dreamily.
How many times has this scene repeated? Each visit I offer increasingly flaccid reminders of my stipulation about gifts, and with considerable discomfort and a few passive aggressive barbs, we reach a shaky accord.
But next time, every time, he arrives with more piles of brightly colored plastic that I imagine will endure eons unchanged, languishing in some future archeological site until the collection thrills some underpaid researcher armed with a paintbrush and a sifting tray. Only then will these primary-colored monstrosities have value. Only then will they truly be educational.
I toss the last of the trinkets into the trash bag, which bulges grotesquely, itself a ponderous metaphor for the excess of capitalism. The girls’ bedroom now looks like a magazine layout for Real Simple, only my carefully selected wooden puzzles and literary books arranged on the shelves in delightful symmetry. So minimal! So organized!
Sighing with satisfaction, like a macabre anti-Santa I heave the black bag over my shoulder. I tiptoe down the hallway toward the front door, pausing to look at the three little heads all pointed at the TV, one blonde and two brunette, bluish light playing on their plump cheeks like aurora borealis. I skulk toward the front door, but I’m stopped mid-stride by a chilling, “What are you doing, Mommy?”
Slowly I turn. One of them has disengaged from her entertainment and is watching me from the corner of her eye, already suspicious that I am violating her God-given right as an American to own endless piles of shit.
She’s my goofball, my delicious blue-eyed pumpkin-face who loves being tickled and can play “Where’d she go? She was just here…” until I want to pry out my own eyes with a Nuby spoon. This angelic love muffin is also capable of throwing a full-on screaming tantrum complete with self-injury and damage to property. The drama can last as long as 45 minutes and only resolves when she’s exhausted herself and falls into a fitful slumber that resembles fever-induced coma. I am a little bit scared of her.
“I’m taking out the trash,” I say with a nervous smile.
She points at an incriminating corner of fuchsia fabric that protrudes from the mouth of the garbage bag. “Is that my fourth of July dress?” Only she says it, fofe of joowhy dwess. Cute, right? No, it isn’t. Not now. “That wooks wike my dwess.”
“No,” I say, chin stiffened with determination. Oh, I can taste it, the satisfaction of forever disappearing these unwashable voile abominations, these plastic affronts to all that is tasteful! I’m so close.
“Mommy that’s my fofe of joowhy dwess.”
“Honey there’s no such thing as a fourth of July dress.” A weak evasion, for indeed my daughter does have a Fourth of July dress – an especially delicate confection in pink that she wore to watch fireworks last summer.
She sips apple juice from her Minnie Mouse cup, regarding me with a mixture of incomprehension and accusation. Her sisters lazily glance in my direction and, like good children, turn back to the screen to continue their mental deadening. But this one won’t be deterred. “Want to see in bag.”
“No.” I take a step away from her.
The sippy cup hits the floor. A droplet of apple juice erupts from the straw and arcs over the edge of the cup onto the carpet. I stare at the drop as it soaks into the once-tufted wool, now flattened and sticky from years of juicy mishaps, hoping her attention span will give out before she gets to the bottom of this. She squints her eyes, spots a fishtail shape jutting through the plastic, and points. “Moo-maid.”
I tighten my grip on the mouth of the garbage bag, and immediately cringe at my mistake. A spectral voice issues from the depths of the bag: “Goosey Goosey Gander…”
“Mother Goose Caboose!” she cries, betrayal writ large in her crystalline eyes. She throws her head back, wails, “I want LadyBug!” and throws herself onto the floor in paroxysms of grief – a brilliant gambit.
“Told ya,” my husband says as he saunters back to his office.
I glare at his beatle-shaped back as he disappears into the garage.
One naptime a year ago, in a fit of insanity, I packed LadyBug up along with a pile of other products from Chinese sweat shops, hid them in the trunk of my car, and dropped them off at the thrift store, collecting an expedient receipt to be forgotten at tax time.
LadyBug was one of Pumpkin Face’s favorites, an electronic toy that made beeps and buzzes frenetic enough to induce migraine. It had a total of 15 parts in different geometric shapes that, once painstakingly assembled, would spectacularly pop off if the gadget was accidentally breathed upon. I hated it, and getting rid of it had been pure catharsis, until the day Pumpkin Face discovered my treachery.
Not a day goes by without fresh tears for her loss. LadyBug is no longer physically present, but her tacky revenant torments me still through the volatile vessel of my four-year-old daughter.
“LadyBug!” she screams again.
“You never played with it!” I cry, gnashing my teeth at her.
“Yes I did,” she sputters, takes a deep breath, and glares at me.
She is suddenly, eerily calm.
I cower under her gaze as she twists the fabric of her delicate nightie, a gift from a former acquaintance that she adores, which must be hand washed in lavender water and line-dried on a bright spring day lest it disintegrate, leaving her in hopeless and undying anguish.
I think ahead to the Christmases and birthday parties and parades and goddamn restaurant openings and Mardi Gras and preschool picnics, all the venues wherein adults bestow freebies and gimmes and swag unto children, gleefully throwing their plastic beads and flimsy fireman helmets at all the outstretched baby hands of America. All this endless, free plastic crap is already loaded on the pipeline of the future and headed my way, a colophon of curios. What’s the point in fighting?
I release my grip on the mouth of the trash bag and she dives into it, pulling everything onto the floor, laughing, “Silly mommy! These are toys, not garbage!”
But she knows. She knows.
Her sisters emerge from their catatonia and join her in the pile, gleefully diving further into the trash bag, emitting delighted exultations: “My pink moo-maid tail… Bunny Foo Foo was hiding!… Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander…” They join in with Mother Goose Caboose, raising their voices in a sick revival of religious authoritarianism.
A protective layer of apathy enfolds me, and I shamble to the coffee maker, reflecting for the thousandth time on the housewives of the 1950s and their enviable access to pharmaceuticals. As I rinse the filter I can hear the voices of my little darlings as they experience the joy of Christmas all over again. I start myself another cup.
If the plastic bag stops rustling, I’ll check.