Paul A. Toth
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
She came in a box that could have held a vacuum, or roses, a long, slender box I carried home from the store like a baby. After all, her systems were more sensitive than a baby's clockwork, at least until we swapped. She was, like water, waiting to be spilled if I wasn't careful. My watery Imogene -- Imagina, I mean -- carried a sea of electronics within her, the great mother ocean digital, bearing pixilating fantasies. Yes, I was afraid: I held a delicate memory in my hands, one about to merge with mine. The advertisements promised: "No swap the same!" This was special, too special. I was pent up. I might botch the swap.
Imagina Cuckoo was the name of this, the first Id Doll. There was no tag
indicating, "Based on Imogene Coco, comedienne who starred in Your Show of Shows with husband Sid Caesar. Born on November 18, 1908 in the American city once called Philadelphia. Died in 2001." I'd always had a fascination with screwball comediennes of the mid-20th century, but especially this human Olive Oil with the mouth that loved to stretch and slinky frame built for contortion. If the ads did not discuss the genesis of her name, and the inventor would not reveal it, I knew.
Once home, I unpacked her. It was not like undressing a baby, nor a doll, but a full-grown, unconscious woman. You've probably seen Vertigo (no doubt in two dimensions). Think Jimmy Stewart undressing Kim Novak after she jumps in the San Francisco Bay. That's exactly how it was.
Her vanilla skin -- what do you want me to call it, a composite synthetic material -- and the tiny hairs...perfect, perfect. A mouth that suggested a genetic comedic lever switched on full. And those closed eyes; you could imagine behind them hovering UFO's, kick dancing giraffes, toy stores, zoos, candy shops, circuses, international expos, where everyone spoke in secret zany languages. It was the energy of revolt, not political revolution but uprisings against the basic conventions. Sit on a chair? Not me. Stand on your feet? I prefer my head. Walk in a straight line? Not today, sister.
It was close, so close. I would sink the invisible port on the tip of my forefinger into her navel, a brief human-doll connection, me to her and her to me. She would absorb some portion of me -- call it id, but that was just a catch phrase, a throwback to your era, when psychological treatment involved mysteries of the deep and lots of talking.
Now I slid my finger into her belly, tickling her awake. Come on, my darling. Yes. There, there. A slight twitching of the eyes, a pursing of the lips, and now, a sigh. This is really happening! Come to life, my funny Frankenstein. At last my love has come along. My lonely days are over. I found a dream that I could speak to. A dream that I can call my own. I found a thrill to press my cheek to. A thrill that I have never known.
She blinked. She rolled to her side, stood. She smiled, looking at the floor, shuffling her feet. But this was just a shy routine. Now she stared at me, lips corkscrewed in a crazy smirk, my desires humming inside her like instructions sent via ESP.
Suddenly she snapped to like a Marine in a panic attack. Then one arm shot back, elbow in the air, quivering like cartoon rubber, until she bolted across the room, up the wall, across the ceiling, over my shoes, Daffy Duck on speed, my head spinning (or was it spinning, because this was Imagina at work in me, screwing up the eyesight, playing games with pupils, poking at peripheral vision... she couldn't defy gravity, could she?) Soon, the entire room was a zooming streak of split lines, dashes, flourescent light, neon bolts, until she stopped so fast her legs should break, then lunged through the air, landed in my lap, and sang "Ta-daaaaaaaa!"
I looked at her and said, "I love you."
She did not love me.
She sat down in my single folded chair (I was a bachelor's bachelor), set a wobbling elbow on one knee, propped her chin on her upturned palm, and said, "Love? Lord above. Now you're trying to trick me in love?"
She looked so sad, like she put the lorn in for. She was inanimate, stripped of throb, quiver and bob. Then, through the wall, came an arrow that shot through her heart. It's tail wobbled as stars and moons sprayed from Imagina's body like raindrops from a rose.
I touched her cheek and said, "What's the matter?"
"I'm not allowed to tell," she said. "I'll feel better, later. I'd like to sleep, if I could."
I picked her up and set her on my bed, folded the blanket over her body. Her feet stuck out from the end, and when I pulled the blanket down to cover them, the big shoes formed a tent at the foot of the bed.
Sitting on the floor, resting my back against the mattress, I propped my own chin on my upturned palm, only no arrow came through the wall into my heart, and no stars and moons sprayed magically about me.
In the weeks that followed, only rarely did Imagina's mood improve. Sometimes, late in the morning after several cups of coffee, or late in the afternoon, after I tried to wash away my gray skies with a few glasses of scotch, she came to life as if drugged, and performed with a heartless mania, like an old drunk trying to capture younger, more coherent binges. She would tap dance on the ceiling, spin impossible stacks of bottles on her hands and head, or whip around in 360's by the tip of her nose. She would shuffle across the floor using the trunk of my plastic palm tree as a cane. But in her eyes there was a hollowness so real -- if an emptiness can be said to be real -- I could not be sure it was not mine, either projected by me or downloaded in the swap.
As you know, there was a time when to make a doll talk you pulled a string. I've held a few at toy fairs. Their charm is like that of a particularly stupid person whose every word can be predicted. Such dolls might activate attachment, affection and even love of a sort, but not romantic love, nor demon possessiveness. So it was all the more frustrating that Imagina had no cord, button, lever or switch. The second time I asked her what was wrong, she stared at me until her eyeballs fell out of their sockets, rolled across the floor, struck the wall, then rolled backwards across the floor, up her legs, chest and face, and back into the sockets. Then she looked at the floor and shook her head no, no, no.
Imagina was a real cultural phenomena. Hundreds of thousands were sold. But a strange thing happened. Many male consumers, and a smaller but still substantial number of female purchasers, complained that their models were listless, unresponsive.
Give it time, the company suggested. Every doll was different and certain owners might transmit their own dysphoric tendencies. Eventually, Imagina would come around, for it was it was in her nature to respond to the world with joyous abandon. Whether these unhappy consumers bided their time as the company instructed, or simply put Imagina to sleep in some closet, mattered little to me. My Imagina was getting worse, her little dances almost nonexistent now, no matter how caffeine-energized at dawn or scotch-numbed at dusk I became. I would hold her hands and she would moan almost inaudibly, trembling and looking as if she might crumble like bread.
I sent letters to the company. I documented her moods. I expressed my dismay. But always came the same reply: Patience, patience. How much patience can a lover bear, especially a lover made to feel like the parent of a helpless child?
They must have thought it funny, the charts and diaries and clips. They must have thought I went crazy, but if I was crazy, then surely Imagina would at least mirror that much responsiveness to the world, rather than her sad withdrawal. I would have prayed if I had the heart left to believe that hard in anything.
We spent so many hours alone in my apartment. At best, she would pace across the floor, back and forth like a pendulum, until I grasped her shoulders and said, "You must rest." But that was ridiculous; she had no need to rest. So I released her and she continued pacing. Sometimes I joined her. Back and forth we'd march. I felt bad for my neighbor downstairs, who had long ago given up knocking on the ceiling with a broomstick.
Finally, I sent one last letter to the president of the company. I had heard such direct approaches often worked at the corporate level. You had to reach to the very top to get at the heart of a man or woman who cared, whose interest was really vested in your problem. I understood that the president of the company was also Imagina's inventor, and so, having saved this last resort for some final, desperate moment, I put it to him:
"YOU sold Imagina to me. I followed the directions that came with your product. And now I am in love with a doll that simply paces all day, then sits in a corner at night, sobbing in the dark while I try to sleep. I cannot comfort her, nor even ask what is the matter, without her quite literally falling to pieces. I have already received letter after letter from one department or another of your company, telling me to be patient. Well, I have been patient long enough. I hope you will have the compassion and dignity to address this matter with the seriousness and immediacy it deserves."
When I sealed the letter, it was with, I realized, the saliva of what you would call a real nut job. I was sure my letter would be tacked to the wall of some break room, and every day at lunch the employees of the company would double over in hysteria, pointing at the letter and patting each other on the back.
A week later, a letter arrived from the company. However, the letter was not addressed to me personally, but Enraptured Consumer. The envelope itself was not businesslike in the usual corporate manner, but looked like something that would announce I had just won a billion dollars.
I opened the envelope and found a glossy sheet of paper.
"YOU fell in love with Imagina, and haven't been the same since. How do WE know? Because you said the word 'love' and triggered Imagina's secret Id response. Oh, but not just any Id Doll response -- Imagina's SECRET Id response. That's right, Imagina has a crush, and only NOW can YOU make her happy by giving her back her long lost love. NOW the makers of Imagina Cuckoo are proud to announce the arrival of that love: ID TEASER! That's right, Imagina's soulmate and the only thing that can revive that old Id spirit you've missed since mentioning what makes us all so human: LOVE! Watch as Imagina Cuckoo and Id Teaser ratchet up the nonsense in their lifelong zany love affair right in YOUR OWN HOME."
"What's that?" Imagina asked.
"This?" I said, waving the sheet of paper in the air. "I bet you'd like to know."
It took me a long time to decide. I can be a mean and spiteful man. I have been that way since I was a child.
But in the end, I could not deny her. Even without the swap, she had me in her. In one sense, all those days we paced together, I was walking with myself. And when I tried to sleep despite her agony, it was also despite my own.
When she and Teaser smacked lips, a million tiny cartoon hearts filled my apartment, bouncing off the walls like superballs. Closing the door, I wondered what would happen to them after my two year lease expired.
You might as well know I've got a new Imagina in a box at home. I was thinking I could see her filled with joy one more time. Only this time, from the first she'll see me in my silver suit, my hair fixed just like Sid's -- Id's, I mean. I'll get good and drunk, zany plastered, screwball plowed. Then we'll swap, see, me and Imagina, and we'll go cuckoo crazy, get it? Sure, that's what we'll do. Yeah, that's it, sister. And if the world don't get the joke, we'll make 'em laugh. We'll squirt seltzer in their eyes. I'll put on this silver jacket and slick back my thinning hair. You don't mind, do ya? God, but this is ka-raaazy, ain't it?
Come on, my darling. Yes. There, there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul A. Toth
is an American writer living in Michigan. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best American Mystery Stories. His novel Fizz
will be published in late 2003. He recently completed his second novel. For more information, please see www.netpt.tv