The next time her mother-in-law asked her to an antique fair, Michelle Evans would find a way out of it. She'd need a good excuse, too. Like Ebola or SARS. The Black Plague. Maybe even all three, Joyce not being the type of woman to whom one simply told “no.” Especially not when she played her I Always Wanted a Daughter card. It was just too bad Joyce seemed to think the only thing daughters were good for was dragging to antique shops and flea markets and garage sales on perfectly good weekends.
She trailed Joyce into a tent filled with shimmering dishes and vases—more carnival glass—and as Joyce continued on, Michelle stopped in front of a table. She picked up a teacup and peered through it like a kaleidoscope. And still failed to see what all the fuss was about.
“Chelle!” Joyce called from several rows over.
Michelle set down the cup and headed towards Joyce, fanning her T-shirt as she went. It was only April, but it may as well have been July. At least this tent had industrial-sized fans positioned throughout. She paused in front of one, stuck her face into the hot-breath breeze and pressed her fingers to her hairline. Fuzzy. Definitely fuzzy. And after all that time in the salon only two days ago. Thanks to Joyce and her obsession with other people’s castoff junk, she’d have to use the hot comb tonight. Joyce had probably never even seen a hot comb, let alone used one. All of the Evanses had fine hair — good hair — soft, glossy curls and waves that Michelle couldn't imagine required much maintenance, certainly not the hours and money she spent fooling with her own coarse locks.
“We doing okay for time?” Joyce asked when Michelle reached her. Joyce speak for "Am I keeping you from something?" So she had seen Michelle checking her watch a few minutes ago. The woman didn’t miss a beat.
“Yes, of course."
Joyce pointed at a tent across the way: Molly’s Dollies, according to the hand-painted sign. “What do you say we make that our last stop anyway? It would be nice to beat the traffic back to Houston.”
Michelle held back her smile. “Sure," she said. "If you want."
The tent flaps at the entrance to Molly’s Dollies were held open by fabric bows so poufy and prim, they could have been the drapery tiebacks from Joyce’s own house. Beyond the entrance, makeshift shelves of plywood planks suspended atop cinder blocks hosted dolls of all shapes and sizes, colors and compositions. A doleful selection of dingy plush animals rounded out the offerings.
Michelle followed Joyce down a cramped aisle to the tent’s rear. Behind a long wooden table, a fattish white woman guarded the true collectibles. Dressed in crisp denim overalls and perched on a stool, she looked not unlike a doll herself, all pink cheeks and pursed mouth.
“Afternoon,” the woman said with a sweet smile. "Welcome to Molly's Dollies. I'm Molly." She slid from the seat and approached the edge of the table. “How may I help you ladies today?”
“We’re just browsing,” Joyce said, stroking the blonde ringlets of a doll displayed on the table. “Oh, now look at her.”
To Michelle, the doll looked no different than the dozens of others like it in Joyce’s house, in the special room Joyce devoted to displaying her "girls," as she called them. A United Nations of a menagerie, girls of all skin and hair colors filled Joyce’s shelves and cabinets. Palm-sized girls, girls as tall as toddlers. Girls in onesies and pinafores, period costumes and ethnic garb. Even an equestrian girl astride her own thoroughbred. What her mother-in-law saw in doll collecting, Michelle would never know.
While Joyce fawned over the doll, Michelle found herself gazing just beyond the table, past the stool Molly had vacated. A lone, stuffed boy doll was propped on the uppermost shelf of a case, its legs jauntily crossed and dangling off the edge. It was attired in what had to be minstrel livery — red jacket with tails and blue pants with a matching bowtie.
The doll had a tar-colored, moon face, enormous, round eyes, and a scarlet clown mouth. A mop of black fuzz topped its overlarge head. Michelle had been antiquing with Joyce long enough not to be surprised by the mammy cookie jars and lawn jockeys that reared their dusky heads every now and again, but she’d never seen anything like this doll. Its eyes stared straight ahead, but in that curious manner of dolls, followed Michelle as she moved to the other end of the table. She plucked an issue of Doll Fancy from the tabletop and leafed through it. Anything to avoid looking at that thing.
"Chelle, look," Joyce said a few moments later, wiggling come-hither fingers. She hadn't moved on from the doll with the Shirley Temple curls.
Michelle returned to her side. “She’s pretty. Are you getting her?"
"No, not her. Him.” Joyce pointed at the display case behind the table. To the black ragdoll.
The doll stared back at them.
“May I?" Joyce asked the proprietor.
With a great show of care, the woman lifted the doll from the shelf. In her pale hands, it seemed...blacker. "Isn’t he precious? And very rare," she said, handing the doll to Joyce. Again, Michelle couldn’t help noticing the contrast between the doll’s blackness and the color of the hands holding him. The melanin in Joyce’s skin was merely a suggestion. A complexion black people called high yellow or yellow boned, old school expressions that would probably never slip from the vernacular. Yellow boned. That one had always thrown her. Weren't everyone’s bones white? Even those of dark-skinned people like her? At least folks didn't go around saying black boned.
“Good afternoon!” Molly announced over their heads. “Y’all looking for anything in particular?” She bustled away to greet the newcomers.
"Look how sweet he is, Chelle." Joyce’s face brightened with the exuberance of a young girl. “I think it’s a black Raggedy Andy.”
Sweet? A black Raggedy Andy? Joyce couldn’t be serious. As a child, Michelle had mothered her fair share of baby dolls, dolls—save for their brown skin and dark hair — no different in appearance than their white counterparts. But this doll was no white doll dipped in chocolate. Like the Mammy figurines, it was just another relic from the dark past. How had Joyce missed that? Michelle swallowed the words forming on her tongue. Once, she’d informed Joyce that it was Sidney Portier who had been knighted by the Queen of England, not James Earl Jones as Joyce had insisted. She’d shown Joyce the Wikipedia article to prove it. For the next two weeks, Joyce had only addressed Michelle in monosyllables.
“Excuse me?” Michelle said to Molly instead, motioning her over. Problem solved. "How old is this Raggedy Andy?"
The woman laughed, a cheerful trill that filled the tent. It also filled Michelle with the prickly heat of irritation.
“Raggedy And...?” Molly looked from the doll to Michelle and back at the doll again. “Ah. No, dear. This here is a Lil’ Ambrose.”
For the second time that day, Michelle kept her smile at bay.
“A Little Ambrose?” Joyce said. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Oh, I’m not surprised, dear. They were popular in England for a short time, back in the early 1900s. They never quite caught on here. Like I said, very rare. Now, this particular one...”
As Molly droned on, Michelle studied Lil’ Ambrose. This close, she could make out the individual threads of the bright red mouth sewn into its black face, the chalk-white rings encircling its ebony pupils.
She looked away from the doll, and as she did, a wave of nausea roiled her stomach. It was followed by a dull cramp. She took her bottle of water from her purse and downed it. Her stomach continued to churn. “Do you mind if I step outside?” she whispered to Joyce. Fluish. She was beginning to feel downright fluish.
“What’s wrong?” Joyce asked, one perfect brow raised.
“I don't know. It's probably just the heat. Maybe if I sit down. I think I saw a bench right out—”
“I’ve got an extra chair back here, dear,” Molly said, thin lips upturned into her saccharin smile. “I’ll bring it around.”
“No! I mean...thank you, but no. I need some—some fresh air.” Michelle touched Joyce’s arm. “Please take your time, Mom, really. I’ll be right outside.” She didn’t wait for an answer. If she didn’t get out of this tent, and now, she had a feeling Joyce would be picking her up off the dirt floor.
“I promise I won’t be a minute,” Joyce called after her.
Outside, Michelle sat on the bench and fanned herself with the festival map. She reran the day in her head. Could her lunch of funnel cake and Mexican Coke be to blame? All that sugar and the moist heat. Her stomach lurched again as if to say, BINGO! She blotted her forehead with the back of her hand, but succeeded only in moving the sweat around. She would definitely have to use the hot comb tonight. Trying to ignore the intensifying urge to vomit, Michelle gulped the humid air and prayed Joyce would keep her promise.
Weeks later, Michelle had an explanation for her spontaneous illness and it had nothing to do with the heat or her poor dietary choices. It also made for a funny anecdote: The last time I went antiquing with my mother-in-law, I literally got sick to my stomach. But it turned out I was only PREGNANT!
It also turned out that being with child was the best excuse of all to avoid Joyce’s antiquing road trips. Not that she ever got to use it after she announced her pregnancy. The antiquing, the garage sales, the flea markets, all of it was soon replaced with Joyce’s insistence on taking her baby shopping. For once, Michelle found herself looking forward to Joyce’s invitations and even extending some of her own. They finally had a common interest, and besides, Michelle’s own mother had died twelve years earlier: Joyce was the closest thing to a mother she had. She had to admit she needed Joyce’s guidance, her experience. Her nurturing.
From the moment he arrived, it was clear Travis Christopher Evans, Jr. — TJ for short, although Joyce insisted on calling him "Junior" — had inherited more from his father than his name. Like his father’s, his hair was black and finely curled, a full head’s worth of it, too. Although his skin wasn’t as light as Travis, Sr.’s, it was nowhere near as dark as Michelle’s. And then there were his eyes: they were the same shade of hazel that had first made Michelle turn her head his father’s way. As a child, she had longed for light-colored eyes. Pretty eyes, the kids called them. In high school, she even went as far as to buy herself a pair of green contacts, but they’d looked so unnatural, so ludicrous set in her dark face she’d thrown them away after only a few wears. But none of that mattered now. Her own child having pretty eyes was almost as good as having them herself.
The first night back home, though exhausted, Michelle could hardly sleep for staring at her son as he dozed in his basinet. With each rise and fall of his tiny chest she felt a surge of love and gratitude, not only for his health, but also for his beauty.
At 2:00 a.m., she was awakened by his cries.
Her husband swung a leg out of bed.
“I’ve got it,” Michelle whispered and kissed his cheek. He may not have delivered a baby, but he'd been so attentive the past few days. There would be plenty of time to tag-team late night feedings. Besides, she wanted to be alone with her son.
She took the baby into the nursery, finding her way to the glider by the nightlight’s yellow glow. Settling against the pillow, she raised TJ to her breast. He began to suckle. It was an odd, yet thrilling sensation she hadn't quite gotten used to.
She stroked his fine curls and the rhythmic suctioning of his mouth began to lull her back to sleep. Widening her eyes, she stared across the room, seeking something, anything, on which to focus.
The Lil’ Ambrose doll stared back at her from the top of the baby’s dresser.
It couldn't be. She blinked. Once. Twice. But it was still there.
“Travis!” she yelled, struggling out of the glider, her nipple pulling free of the baby’s mouth. “Travis!” TJ’s startled cries filled the nursery.
Travis was in the room before she made it to the door. He flicked on the light, his eyes wild and searching. “What? What happened?” He reached for the baby.
Michelle shook her head. “He’s fine.” She pointed. “It’s that."
“Jesus, Chelle. You scared the hell out of me.” He walked to the dresser and looked around on the surface, then down at the floor. “Did it crawl away?”
“Did it what?” Michelle said, then realized he thought he’d been summoned to stomp a bug. “No! Not a bug! It’s the doll!”
“Yes! Yes, the doll! Where did it come from?”
He stared at her as if she'd just sprouted a second, dim-witted head. “Mom. It came from my mom. She brought it over yesterday. For the baby. Isn’t it the right one? The one y’all saw at that antique show last year?”
Oh, it was the right one, all right. Joyce had been so intrigued by the doll that Michelle had assumed she was going to buy it, but she’d emerged from the tent carrying only the bags with which she’d entered. What a relief that had been.
And now, here it was. In her house. In her baby’s nursery.
Clutching TJ closer, Michelle left the room.
“She wanted to surprise you,” Travis said, following. He chuckled. “Wait 'til she hears about this.”
“It’s not funny.”
“What’s wrong? It’s just an old doll.”
In their bedroom, Michelle perched on the window seat and rocked the baby. “It’s not just an 'old doll,' Travis. Did you even look at it? It’s a racist artifact, is what it is! I can’t...” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I can’t believe your mother bought it for our son. Or that you’re okay with that.”
Or could she? With his light skin, silky hair, and slight facial features, perhaps Travis was okay with it because when he looked at the doll, he didn’t see an exaggerated version of himself. Neither did Joyce. Michelle didn’t have that luxury.
Travis shrugged. “She said it’s a collector’s item.”
“So is Confederate memorabilia. Should we run out and get a rebel flag to hang above his crib?”
“'But' nothing. Bottom line is, I don’t like it. And I don’t want it in my baby’s room.”
“Okay, okay. I get it. But you know how my mother is. We can’t just give it back.”
“So what do you suggest we do with it?”
Travis shrugged. “Stick it in a closet or something.”
“But not now. She’ll be over later today, remember? She’ll expect to see it. Can you at least pretend to like it? We can hide it after she leaves.”
“So, I was browsing in Molly’s Dollies shortly after you said you were having a boy — their actual shop is just over on the west side, not too far from here — and would you believe he was still there?” Joyce said later that morning. She and Michelle were standing in the nursery, in front of the dresser. “I was surprised no one had scooped him up sooner. I considered getting him for myself, but he wouldn’t quite fit in with my girls. Then, I thought, why not get him for my new grandson? Who knows, maybe Junior will pass him down to his own child one day.”
Joyce smoothed a crease in the Lil’ Ambrose's jacket and straightened his bowtie. "He’s perfect for the nursery, don’t you think?” she said, beaming.
“Now, remember, he’s not a toy. As soon as Junior’s big enough to start getting into mischief, you’ll have to make sure he knows that. Keep him out of reach.”
Sunlight poured into the room, spotlighting the doll and, it seemed to Michelle, nothing else. Not the baby animal safari-themed wall decals or the stuffed lions, giraffes, and elephants she’d arranged throughout the room. The doll couldn’t be any less perfect for the nursery.
“It was very thoughtful of you, Mom. Thank you again.”
“A sweet boy for a sweet boy,” Joyce said.
Travis had no sooner closed the door behind his mother than Michelle was on her way to take care of the doll. While she would have preferred the trash bin, the closet would have to do since she’d have to return it to the dresser before Joyce’s visits. It was a small price to pay. She’d just add it to the list of all the other feats of deception she performed in anticipation of her mother-in-law’s visits—like serving meals in the formal dining room or spiriting away the stacks of magazines and weeks-old newspapers from the coffee table. After enough time had passed, she’d find a way to make the doll disappear completely, a mishap with a lit candle perhaps. Or even better, a burglary.
Mom, can you believe they even took Junior’s doll? They must have known it was a collector’s item!
Entering the room, she half expected the bureau top to be clear, the Lil’ Ambrose having sensed its imminent relocation and gone into hiding. But it was there.
Until now, she hadn’t considered the fact that she would have to touch it. She should call Travis. Get him to do it.
And suffer his laughter.
Telling herself to stop being an idiot, she snatched up the Lil’ Ambrose. Holding its stiff little body at arm’s length, she hurried it to the hallway closet and stuffed it inside a small suitcase. She slammed the door shut behind her.
Then went to wash her hands.
With the Lil’ Ambrose gone, Michelle nursed, changed diapers, and hummed to her baby in peace. Every now and then, she caught herself glancing at the dresser. But it was always bare.
A few days later, she was rocking the baby when she noticed something odd. She took him into the living room, where Travis was watching television.
“Have you seen this?” she asked.
He stood and peered into TJ’s face. “Seen what?”
Travis leaned closer, squinting. “What exactly am I looking for?”
“They seem darker.” They didn’t just seem it. They were.
“I can’t tell. Anyway, didn’t that nurse tell us some babies’ eyes darken up after awhile?”
Yes, that foolish woman had said something to that effect, but what did she know? Michelle had confirmed with Joyce that Travis’s eyes were hazel at birth, too. Why would TJ’s change if his father’s hadn’t?
A few days later, there was no doubt. His eyes were brown. Almost black. Frowning, her own eyes hot and damp, Michelle stared into the crib. Her son, oblivious of his great loss, gazed into the middle distance with his slightly crossed, brown eyes. Michelle touched his head to smooth his hair, but snatched her hand back at once. Slowly, she touched him again.
This was not the hair she’d brushed only hours ago. This hair was coarser. Stiffer.
What was happening to her beautiful baby boy?
She went to get Travis. They returned to find TJ slumbering.
Travis grabbed her arm as she bent to lift the baby. “Don’t you dare,” he whispered. “I’ll look at his eyes when he wakes up.”
“No, not his eyes. His hair!”
Travis frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with his hair, Chelle.” He looked her over. “Since he’s out, why don’t you catch a nap, too? You’ve hardly slept.” He steered her to their bedroom.
Travis was right. She hadn’t been sleeping well. Three, maybe four hours a night tops. Delirium. That was the problem. People went crazy from lack of sleep. She’d read about it. Or maybe she’d seen a documentary.
A nap would be nice.
Although she’d set the alarm for an hour and a half, Michelle woke up on her own, two minutes before it was due to buzz. Her hands on her abdomen, she stared at the ceiling and practiced the ujjayi breathing she’d learned in a yoga for beginners class years ago. She wasn’t sure she was doing it right. Perhaps she should take up yoga again, in earnest this time. Based on her behavior over the past few days, she needed all the help she could get adjusting to being a new mother. The alarm sounded and she silenced it and popped out of bed. She wandered into the kitchen to find Travis making sandwiches. TJ was in his carrier on the dining table.
“Feeling better?” Travis asked.
“God, yes. I needed that,” she said, walking over to the baby. “Has he been asleep all this time?”
“He woke up about twenty minutes ago, but dozed back off after I put him in there.”
Michelle bent over the carrier. During the day, the kitchen window offered sufficient lighting for most tasks, and with a snoozing baby, it made sense that Travis hadn’t turned on the overheads.
But she needed them now.
“Turn on the lights," she said.
“Turn them on.”
The fluorescents cast a soft, white glow. More than enough for Michelle to see the baby's skin was several shades darker.
Michelle opened her eyes to find herself back in bed, with no memory of how she'd gotten there. It was as if someone had pressed stop, then pressed play on a different scene. Her head throbbing, she sat up, and because no light seeped in through the closed blinds, she strained to see around the bedroom. The clock on her nightstand read 7:12 p.m. She'd slept almost eight hours.
She crept to the door and eased it open. Low voices reached her from down the hall. Travis had called his mother. They were probably discussing her now.
She's just having such a hard time with this motherhood thing. She’s seeing things that aren’t there.
We should get her to the doctor. It could be post-partum depression.
It was enough to make her head back to bed. Deal with it all later. Then she remembered.
The Lil’ Ambrose.
She couldn’t imagine Travis would have thought to put it back. Or had he? She tiptoed to the nursery.
The doll wasn’t there.
Good. If Joyce had been in the nursery, she would have noticed the doll's absence immediately and Travis would have wasted no time returning it to the dresser, leaving Michelle to suffer the consequences later, as soon as Joyce was sure she’d recovered from whatever caused her fainting spell.
Thank God she still had time.
She headed for the closet. Keeping her eyes on the hallway, she opened the door wide enough to grasp the suitcase. She slowly unzipped it and reached inside. Her hand found only air. No longer concerned with stealth, she yanked open the door.
The suitcase was empty.
“Babe? You up?” Travis called out.
“Be out in a sec!"
Her chest tightened and throbbed; her head beat its own pulsating rhythm. Leaden legs carried her to the living room. Joyce and Travis sat side by side on the couch. In unison, they looked up at Michelle.
“Look, Junior, Mommy’s finally awake,” Joyce said to the bundle in her arms, then looked back at her daughter-in-law. “Such a sweet boy,” she said, and raised him up, up to Michelle like an offering. And poor Michelle, because she could never say no to her mother-in-law, took her baby. She took her baby into her arms and stared into his jet-black face. At his woolly hair. At his dark, bulging eyes.
And he stared right back. Then curled his red mouth into a smile.
Copyright: This written work is the original and fully copyrighted work of Joi Maria. You may not use this work without written permission.