I forget myself and walk by his house today, head down against the knife-sharp wind. Then I remember and furtively glance over at the trio of white lighted trees glowing in the front window, the weary plastic carolers leaning a little to the east, the sagging garland bearing the weight of seasonal duty. I look away in embarrassment.
I could have predicted he’d be the type to extend Christmas into January. It takes one sentimental to know another.
Did he do it for her? Was it she who delighted in all this twinkling, flashing ornamentation? Did he do it for himself, to fill in the empty spaces that surely must echo through that household of one?
“I lost my Irene this year,” he says to me, a stranger on the street, on that brisk fall morning when we first meet. As his eyes blur with tears, he wipes them away, and tells me of his wife. How he lived in this town all his life, how he and his Irene built this house. They were high school sweethearts, he says, back when the high school sat on the property that now holds the SuperMegaMart.
The two of us stand a foot apart on his corner driveway, amid the blowing leaves, a few footsteps from the bus stop. He in varsity jacket and skull cap. Me, obscured by dark glasses and hat pulled down low, on my way home from morning drop off. I listen and zip my jacket up to my chin.
He’s been watching me and my little girl, he says, and wants to know something.
Words like that don’t go down smoothly. They bounce around inside my head like a pinball, hitting various fear and panic buttons. I want to flee.
He’s lonely, of course, which explains his morning sentry in the front window, waving at passers-by, and his maybe-not-so-random offers for companionship.
“Coffee?” he says on a glowing September morning as I pass his yard. He leans out his kitchen window, hoisting a mug in one hand and pointing toward his back porch with the other.
“Good morning!” I say, waving as I keep walking, my face reddening. Does he really expect me to stop? Am I more embarrassed of my dishevelled state or his bold offer?
What he may not realize is that my morning trek really is an extended walk of shame. The hat, glasses and coat are a cover for a person who deems it acceptable to roll out of bed, slurp a cup of coffee, and race to the bus stop, child in tow, underwearless.
Two weeks later we meet again. This time on his driveway. He isn’t going to let me get away this time. Me? I’m still underwearless and sleepy-eyed. I wonder if he pities me.
“Do you like dolls?” he says.
Inspired by “Lars and the Real Girl” I imagine he has a high-quality blow up doll propped in a chair at the kitchen table, one made up to look like his late wife. She has a kind smile and wears a flowered apron. Maybe her cross stitching basket is nearby.
The rest of the story is that the cancer took Irene last summer. The kids are grown and gone. There are a few grandkids around but only boys. His wife collected dolls. He has a lot of dolls. He sees my little girl skipping by each day and wonders, naturally, if maybe she wants one or more of the dolls.
Across the space between us, the tendrils of despair reach out, twist around my ankles, work their way upward. I think of a man living alone in a house filled with the sound of ticking clocks and the stare of ornamental dolls. Hundreds of soulless eyes following your every movement. Hundreds of little hands reaching out in endless need. The dark blanket slips over my shoulders, wraps around my throat. I feel the weight and I don’t want to go into that dark house and look at those empty-eyed dolls. I want to run as far away from it as possible.
I tell him I’ll think it over, that it is an extremely nice gesture, and I’ll get back with him. I continue walking home, knowing I am a liar. I hate those collector dolls. I want to hug that man and burn his dark blanket, watch the inferno fill every corner of his house with happy light. I wish sad people would leave me alone.
The next week, Girl from the East suggests we take a new route to school and I oblige. She doesn’t know my reasons for being so agreeable but I know she wants to walk to the bus stop with the children who live on the next block.
The man and his dolls are forgotten.
Today, as I glance at the tired carolers and limp garland, I remember everything and I wonder:
Does the lonely man still wait at his front window for the dishevelled woman and her little girl to walk by? Does he wonder why he never saw them again? What did he say to all the waiting dolls? What story did he tell them of why the little girl never came to get them? What did he tell Irene?