DOLLS by Ron Parlato

Amanda Leigh, like most little girls, liked to play with Barbie dolls. She liked to dress them, comb their hair, and strut them around in their high heels. “Barbie sends the wrong message,” said a feminist critic. “She symbolizes everything that is wrong with gender roles today.”

Amanda Leigh turned out fine. She created for herself the right balance between girly-girl feminine allure, hip West Coast fashion, and power suits, and she always looks great. She runs her own business, is happily married in a modern, cooperative relationship, and, for all intents and purposes, she is well-adjusted, a term commonly disparaged by those edgy New Yorkers who equate docile, bourgeois equanimity with the Midwest, but one which well describes this talented and thoughtful young woman.

She also played with dolls she could mother, nurse, and cuddle, and spent hours in her room putting them to sleep, changing them, and dealing with “pink eye,” a bad infection she always seemed to get, my sister said, by trying on other children’s glasses.

One day, the dolls were dumped unceremoniously in a box and left on the front porch. “For the Salvation Army,” she said. “I don’t want them anymore.” Thus, the short pre-mothering phase of her life ended.

“You consigned her to testosterone hell,” the feminist critic said. By allowing her daughter to “play house” with dolls, Amanda’s mother automatically set her on a mommy track from which it would be impossible to shunt the train. She would be doomed to a life of Kinder, Küche, Kirche.

Of course this was just radical carping, and none of it came true. Amanda deferred children until she and her husband were ready, and, after the baby was born, she joked with her mother about Baby Shannon’s pink eye, Baby Sarah’s diarrhea, and Baby Lenox’s crotch rot. The baby doll menagerie might not have been an ideal guide to motherhood, but it helped.

As an adult, Amanda was fascinated with dolls, both as art and as social markers. The creepiest dolls she ever saw were in Natchez, Mississippi, at the home of the retired police chief who made a living as a security consultant. His wife, Imelda Figgins, had turned her hobby of making dolls into a small business, but, by the time Amanda met her, her doll-making had become a twisted and frightening obsession.

Imelda Figgins made dolls from scratch. She made her own heads from plaster molds, bought standard plastic bodies, and made all the doll clothes. She had made dolls of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler), George W. Bush, Jefferson Davis, and Jose Marti; copies of Barbie and the Cabbage Patch kids; and her own variations of religious figures – Jesus as a cowboy and Peter as a bass fisherman with a miniature fly rod and bass boat. Her main interest, however, was portrait dolls – people would sit for her, and she would make little replicas of them. She would cast the head, paint the eyes, give the cheeks color, and tailor the clothes.

Despite all the attention and care she put into the dolls, few people actually bought them. She never got the proportions right and there was always something deformed and gnome-like about the bodies. While the faces were recognizable, they all came out with creepy vacant stares. They were more like totems or voodoo dolls than kind resemblances, and when people saw them, they found some excuse not to take them. Imelda didn’t need the money, so she never objected, and displayed the dolls throughout the house. There were creepy dolls on the banister, sitting in the Victorian chairs in the parlor, and even propped up on chairs in the breakfast nook.

Imelda began to turn out dolls that were creepier and creepier. People stopped coming in for sittings, and she began to make her own dolls that were weird replicas of people in the city. She did a very accurate depiction of Mrs. Wentworth, the Grande Dame of the town. She dressed her in the vaguely Victorian clothes she wore and meticulously reproduced her silvery hairdo, but made her face morbid and frightened, as though she had just heard the Angel of Death. She made one of Mrs. Corning, the Chairwoman of Pilgrimage, that looked like a Francis Bacon painting – scary teeth, with all her other features scrambled up but somehow looking like her.

Bert told Amanda that these dolls were keeping people away, especially since she had started making them larger and more lifelike. She had worked out a way to stiffen them up and pose them in various places in the house. She stood the Mayor on the top step of the front stairs and when anyone came in the front door, they could see a ghoulish zombie looking exactly like Henry Creighton taking his first step towards them.

Everyone in Natchez except Bert saw that Imelda was going around the bend, and, if he didn’t watch out, she would go to ”‘the place of no return,” the scary institution on the top of Jefferson Hill to which many mentally deranged sons and daughters of Mississippi had been committed.

The Robert J. Hadley Institution For The Insane had remained unchanged since the mid-Thirties, when it had been built as part of Roosevelt’s WPA. Since it was the Depression, and many people, even in impoverished Mississippi, lost their shirts, ranted and raved in anguish and mental agony, and were sent away to “Twirly” – called this because so many people referred to the demented with a quick circular twirl of the finger by the temple. Most of those committed probably didn’t deserve to be inside, but one thing the residents of Natchez knew quite well was that if you went in there sane, you surely came out deranged.

In any case, Imelda Figgins avoided Twirly because of her newfound religious faith. The Reverend Bullitt Tucker Hadley saw her demonic dolls as uniquely accurate depictions of the Devil; and rather than dismiss her as evil or possessed, he understood her confections as Biblical omens – warnings to the good people of Natchez about what awaited them unless they repented.

Not only did Reverend Bullitt invite her to join the church, but he often let her give the sermon. It didn’t matter what came out of the mouth of this poor, mentally addled woman. The very fact that she made no sense at all was proof that she was speaking in tongues, had been visited by the Lord and given a holy mission.

The preacher encouraged her to show-and-tell, and each Sunday she brought one of her dolls to the pulpit. “This one here,” she started, pointing at the oversized doll with satanic eyes and a mouth where the nose should be, “is Dabney Phillips, a reprobate of the first order, caster of runes, devilish, and corrupt from his gall bladder to his septum.

“Just look what’s growing in his garden,” she said, pulling a clump of weeds out of her apron pocket. “Jimson weed, bladderwort, death cama, and angel trumpets,” she hollered, holding the crabgrass and dandelions up to the congregation. “He died for his sins, but if you go behind his house at night, you can see him tending his ragweed and poison oak.”

Although the more secular residents of Natchez thought that the Reverend Bullitt was exploiting a poor mad woman, the more religious became more compassionate towards mental illness, and more tolerant of the many unhinged, lost souls that wandered downtown. They saw them as shamans, prophets, and seers – God’s messengers, who had thrown off the chains of sanity and logic, and, with special clarity, saw His design.

Meanwhile, encouraged by the reception she received at the church, Imelda kept making dolls, one creepier than the next. A bit worrisome was the fact that she turned ad hominem and her dolls were incredibly accurate caricatures of town leaders. Her doll of Morris Tackle, the owner of Bride’s Dress Revisited, a second-hand shop for used wedding dresses, captured his particular obesity perfectly.

She was now quite deft at stuffing and dressing her dolls, and she captured Tackle’s bulging stomach, rolls of neck fat, and elephantine legs as though the store owner had sat for her. Her doll of the Catholic priest in an unseemly position with a parishioner exposed what everyone in the town knew, but was afraid to tell.

Eventually, Imelda did get committed to ”‘the place of no return,” and, according to all reports, is still in there after twenty years. Amanda still keeps up with Bert Figgins, her husband, who signed the committal papers and confided that a big load had been lifted off his back. There were many in Natchez who were beginning to think that Bert was as balmy as his wife, and that maybe he was behind the creepy ad hominem dolls to exact revenge on the powers that be that voted him out of office.

Amanda always liked dolls – Barbies, cute pudgy babies, voodoo dolls, African totems, and even the thousands of little stuffed cats and dogs that housewives in South Philadelphia still array in the parlor. These dolls, however, were pedestrian compared to those of Imelda Figgins. She had no model to follow other than the dictates of her fevered brain, and the hundreds of dolls that she distributed throughout Natchez were testimonies to her originality, as unbalanced as it seemed.

Amanda bought one of her creepiest dolls as a memento. It was even too creepy for her, and she had kept it in a chest in the basement. The State had taken her doll collection for use in therapy, and Bert was glad to have the house clean and simple again. When he found the one doll remaining, tucked away in the steamer trunk along with scraps of material and string Imelda used to make her creations, his first instinct was to throw it out. There is no way to describe how horribly disfigured and frightening it was; but, for her, it captured the essence of insanity and incorporated all the weird and equally frightening physical idiosyncrasies of the good people of Natchez .

“I’ll take it,” Amanda said to Bert, and now it is on her mantelpiece.