inertia1

Midge

          Eric shoved the cedar chest with one last gasp, kicking it with the force of both heels through the small doorway of his efficiency. The wood along the top of the chest had peeled itself away from the tight fit. Catching his breath at the edge of his couch, he moved the chest to the center of the square little room. He wiped the dirt from his hands on one of the kitchen towels and then knelt down in front of the chest. He opened the chest and removed the old blanket balled up at the bottom. Eric could feel something solid in the middle of the ball, so he laid the blanket down on the little space near the couch and unraveled it.
          The doll's arms were wrapped in a monogrammed handkerchief inside the blanket and a single leg dangled off the doll by a piece of yellowed fabric. A large crack ran across the face of the doll; its eyes had become discolored and milky. Eric stared at the pieces spread out on the blanket. Then he rewrapped the broken arms in the old handkerchief and carefully rolled the blanket around the remains of the doll. He put the blanket back into the bottom of the cedar chest and closed the lid.
          Sitting back on the couch in front of the chest, he tried to remember the name of his sister's doll. At first he thought it might have been Marge. Then he remembered it was Midge. Then he remembered how he would hear the name coming out of his sisters' room. He would lay awake and listen to the name "Midge" echo out of the heating vent as his sister put Midge in her wooden house and changed Midge's dress and took Midge to the dance with her boy doll. Eric could not remember the name of his sister's boy doll.
          His sister had saved every piece of her doll. She had saved all of the pieces after Eric had torn the limbs away. She put the pieces away in a closet and after so many years, she forgot about the doll and what he had done to it. Now he remembered the doll. He remembered the name Midge and he remembered he had torn Midge's limbs away in his bedroom.
          With his metal tank and his green plastic soldiers, he had formed an army on the floor. He laid Midge down on the battlefield and hummed the theme from "Combat." His sister cried and tried to get to Midge, but Eric had locked his bedroom door. He ran the metal tank over Midge; he ran the tank back and forth, back and forth over the doll until he could hear it crack. He put his knee down on the doll, crushed the alabaster chest, tore an arm away. He slid a severed arm under the door to his sister. Eric laughed through the door as she screamed louder. He tore off the other arm and unlocked the door. Then he flung the broken doll at his sister and closed the door.
          Wendy cried through the day, and Eric was spanked with the yardstick by his father and sent to his room. Lying on his still-made bed, Eric could hear the cries coming out of the heating vent that piped up to Wendy's room. During the entire week that his father confined him to his room, he could hear his sister's cries coming and going as he fell in and out of sleep. He heard Wendy crying and trying to fix Midge; he heard her crying and giving Midge a funeral.
          Kneeling in front of the vent, he had yelled up at her. He told her to grow up. He told her that it was just a doll, and if it made her feel any better, he'd buy her a new one with his allowance. He would clean the basement to get more money if he had to, he said through the pipes, so just shut up. All the crying was giving him a headache. Eric had to stay in his room for a week and he told her she'd better stop crying. He never remembered another doll. He only remembered his sister turning into a whore and dating the dirt bike kids that hung at Miller's field. She dated them one after the other, Danny and Will and Keith and Scotty and two others who were involved in a rumble in an empty in-ground pool. He remembered Dudey Morrison, the fat kid who robbed houses. Dudey ran away from reform school and slept in the bushes beneath his sister's window. It poured rain one night during the summer that Dudey was sleeping there, and Eric listened in his bed as Wendy walked across her room to close the window.
          "You might catch a cold in the rain" she whispered to Dudey. Eric heard Wendy let him in. She pulled Dudey in through the open window as he grunted and slammed the window shut and shook himself off.
          "Shhh... Mom and Dad are asleep in the back room," she said. "My brother's in the other room, but he's cool."
          He had heard them going at it in Wendy's bed. They were knocking the headboard against the wall in heartbeat thuds. The rain had lightened, as if to let Eric hear the sex going on. During one large jerk of the bed, the heavy wooden crucifix on Wendy's wall fell to the floor. The cross vibrated the floor like a minor earth tremor. His mother and father awoke and opened the door to their room. They tore down the hallway with "oh my gods" and "honeys." In a flick of a hall light, his parents burst into her room and found Dudey and Wendy naked on the sheets. They found them blinded there by the hall light, muddy and covered with rain water and sweat and a little blood off of the cut from Dudey's dirt bike accident.
          The rest of that night didn't come back in clear order for Eric. Rather, a jumbled series of sounds rearranged themselves in time: shouts, thuds, the smashing of a lamp cover, the opening and closing of doors, bedroom doors and front doors and back doors and car doors and cabinet doors, and then a background of phone calls. "Stay in your room," his father kept calling up from the bottom of the steps. "This is very serious." His sister had left the house on Dudey's motorcycle. Eric remembered watching Dudey offer her his cracked white helmet as she climbed on the back in the drizzle. He remembered the way the crack ran down the helmet, how it looked on her head as she pushed her hair up and as the rain rolled off; it looked like the crack of the Liberty Bell, or rather like the crack through her doll's head.
          A phone call came three months later from a little town named Claire in the Minnesota wilderness. Wendy was taken to a hospital in Claire for too many drugs in her system. She was fine, the doctor on the other end insisted. Eric's father had to take leave from some night shifts to go get her. He bought new tires for his car and drove out to Minnesota with a six-pack next to him on the seat and the back window still missing.
          "She's going to be all right" the doctor told him after an all-night drive. The police were holding Dudey for stealing some fishing gear and a carton of Marlboros, and Wendy was put upstairs in a room with seven beds. She cried when she saw the crucifix on the wall and screamed all night that it was going to fall. The other patients tried to quiet her.
          Wendy came back home for a little while, half a summer or so, but then moved out in the middle of the night in her rented car. She went off to study Applied Mathematics at a coastal college and began to hostess at a grilled fish restaurant. She finished college and tried to find a job as a mathematician. She tried accounting one year until tax season arrived; then she spent the rest of her life hostessing and waiting tables. They had offered her a management position at the grilled fish restaurant, but Wendy turned it down. Her boyfriend Artie, the line cook whom she eventually married, was organizing a labor union and didn't want her involved with "the enemy." Artie was fired shortly after the union didn't get through, after someone had planted a black-and-tan beer at his work station, and he was accused of drinking on the job. Artie went off to school and went on to publish a mildly successful satire of corporate America entitled "The Pyramid of Failure."
          Eric sat on his couch and wondered how Wendy was doing out on the coast. He wondered how her youngest son James had done in the spelling tournament. James won a lot of spelling tournaments, but this tournament was to be his biggest. It was the Tri-State Worker-Bee Championship, and it awarded ten-speed bicycles to the best three spellers. Eric wondered what words James might have had to spell, and he thought of "curmudgeon." Eric remembered James showing him one of his platinum bees for winning on a word something like "curmudgeon." The message Eric's sister left on his machine told him to call her back: she was thinking about flying in from the coast for a vacation with James and William and her new husband. Call her back to make arrangements for the rest of Mom and Dad's things, the message said. She and her new husband and James and William were going to need a place to stay, and can you think of anyone who would be so obliged. Eric would have to call Wendy on the coast and let her know. He knew that his efficiency would not do, and besides that, he was not much of a host.
          The buzzer next to Eric's door went off. He rose from the couch and realized he would have to go around the cedar chest. The chest was tall and wide and took up much of the living room. In his small efficiency, he didn't have much room to walk around it, and it looked out of place in such a small apartment. But he wanted the chest because he liked the smell of cedar. It reminded him of the attic in his parent's old house. Eric walked around the chest and slid along the spackled wall. He unchained the door and walked down the darkened stairway in his stained socks, watching a shadow under the porch light. The shadow swayed across the glass, and a long billow of cigarette smoke lingered under the amber glow. He heard the familiar cough as he reached for the knob.
          Opening the door, he saw Bernard standing on the frozen cement. "Hello Bernie," he said. Eric reached out and kissed him across his chapped lips. "You smell like wine and ciggies," he said.
          Bernard sighed and his breath hung in the winter air, a smoky balloon in the porch light. "I had to stop and tell Amie I wasn't going to be needing her to do the invoices at the office any more," he said. Bernard closed the door behind him and stood next to Eric at the bottom of the stairs. "Why the women take it so hard I'll never know. They say they have an extra tear duct and I believe it. She wouldn't stop crying until I force fed her some Chardonnay and told her a little white lie about how she'd get another office job in nothing flat."
          Eric started up the steps in his stained socks. "Thank God we don't have to get intimate with women," he said, and he thought about yellowed dresses and cracked alabaster. "Well, let's head up and forget Amie and her problems. I'll put on some tea."
          Reaching his hand out, Eric rubbed Bernard along the back of his parka. He slid his hand down along his arm and grasped his hand. Bernard followed Eric as he walked up the stairwell. Eric caught a nail with one of his stained socks. He pulled the caught sock away with his hand. "When are you going to get some gloves, Bernard?" he asked. "You know it takes you forever to warm up."
          "I can't walk a block without losing a glove. Why bother wasting the money?" Bernard replied. He closed Eric's door and kissed him on the cheek. "Besides, some of your hot tea will do the trick."
          Eric and Bernard stepped into the room. The cedar chest blocked their path. "Oh, I picked this thing up at my parent's house today. They left it with a bunch of other things," he whispered. "I don't even know why I lugged it up here, it's much too big."
          "It smells nice," Bernard replied. "Like attics and childhoods."
          Eric and Bernard slid hand in hand along the spackled wall, past the chest to the little kitchen. "How are we going to unfold the bed?" Bernard asked.
          "I hadn't thought about it," Eric replied. I guess we can put the chest in the kitchen when I'm done making the tea."
          "Anything in this old thing?" Bernard asked.
          "Nothing of consequence," Eric said.
          Eric turned on the flame. He carried the kettle over to the sink and ran the water into the spout, then slid the kettle over the flame. He thought he might call up his sister later on in the week. He wanted to tell her about the doll he'd found and ask her if she still remembered the name. Then he remembered what he'd done to Midge with his metal tank. He thought again about her crying and her leaving in the drizzle. He thought about the drugs and the falling cross.
          He decided not to tell Wendy what he'd found. He was nervous about the doll at the bottom of the chest. He felt a wall suddenly between him and Bernard, and another wall between him and his sister. He was afraid as he stood on the tiles and he thought: I will keep the broken doll a secret.
          The cedar chest was much too big for the room. He would have to drag it into the kitchen if he wanted to unfold the bed. Moving away from the kettle and the flame, he walked out of the kitchen and over to the chest.
          Eric lifted the lid and reached to the bottom. With both hands, he took the blanket and the wrapped doll out of the cedar chest. Bernard was flipping the channels and watching the screen and then he stopped at one of the premium channels. "TBS it is," he said.
          Carrying the blanket to the kitchen, Eric stood on the middle tile in his stained socks and with his hurried eyes he looked around. He thought about where he could put the blanket and the doll. Opening the cabinet above the refrigerator, he placed the folded blanket with the broken doll on top of the phone books. Bernard walked back to the couch and looked at Eric, the way he always looked at Eric when his hands got warm. He sat down and picked up the TV Week. Bernard undid some belt loops, sighed, and sank into the cushions.
          Eric closed the cabinet. He listened to the music coming out of the television. It sounded like a 1970's detective show. He thought it might be "Barnaby Jones." The tea water began to hiss on its way to a boil and he anticipated the sound of the whistle at any moment. Bernard would get up off the couch at the sound of the tea whistle. He would come to the kitchen to add his own milk.
          Eric thought about the phone books in the top cabinet. He had just gotten a new book, so he should throw the old one out. He should put it out with the recycling. He had a sudden urge to go through the new phone book; he wanted to look through the yellow pages, under the letter "D" or perhaps the index. He would look in the book after the tea had boiled, after Bernard had gone to sleep. He would look for a specialist that fixed dolls.


Tim Wenzell is the author of a novel, Absent Children (Writer's Digest Books) His short stories have appeared in Potomac Review, Timber Creek Review, Short Stories, Kansas Quarterly, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Synapse, Aethlon and Slow Trains. His essays have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Philadelphia People and Full-Time Dads. His poems have appeared in Myriad, The Comstock Review and Poetry St. Corner. He teaches at Seton Hall University.