The Doll and the Book
Loneliness drove her to create an imaginary object of worship. This sublimation of her need of love she named Corambe, and for many years this glorified being was her constant companion. When she began to write, it was Corambe who composed her stories—she merely heard and recorded the words he spoke.—Marie Jenney Howe on George Sand
Agnes Grey had a new doll, a present from her mother. It was what she had always wanted. Nothing had ever made her so happy.
The doll was almost as big as a real baby, and it was warm, and soft, and cuddly. It had the sweetest face she had ever seen. As she gazed lovingly into its big blue eyes she suddenly realized, with a warm thrill of excitement, that the doll was looking back at her. The eyes were real. The doll was real. And then it spoke.
Agnes woke, the sound of the doll's words still ringing in the quiet air of her bedroom. Wanting to reenter the dream, she kept her eyes closed and concentrated on the warm, golden glow of happiness she had felt while holding the doll. In a moment, she would feel its welcome weight in her arms and understand what it was saying to her. But reality was too strong. Instead of the doll's voice she heard the central heating blowing warm dry air through the ceiling vent, and felt the sunlight which sifted through the Venetian blinds onto her arms and eyelids. She was sweating beneath the covers, so she kicked her legs until the quilt slipped off the bed like a sulky cat. Then she sat up and looked around, hoping that the dream was true, a memory instead of a fantasy, and everything would be changed.
But as she looked around her familiar, cluttered room, none of the toys on the shelves looked back at her.
Everything was the same as when she had gone to bed the night before: the same furniture, the brightly painted pictures taped to pale blue walls, the string of valentines. She had missed Valentine's Day, home with bronchitis all week, but her best friend Leslie had brought her valentines by yesterday, and her sisters had stapled them all to a length of red ribbon and hung them from the ceiling above her bed. She counted them again, and found there were still twenty-two: one from everyone in her class, plus the big one at the bottom which her grandparents had sent.
She coughed experimentally, wondering if she was well enough to go back to school yet. She couldn't remember what day it was, but the silence of the house and the heat of the sun made her think it must be late. She got up.
The twins' room was empty, their beds unmade, clothes strewn on the floor. She walked in, lured by the forbidden, and went straight to the record player. She picked the top record off the stack of paper-cased singles beside it and read the title, her lips moving: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The Tokens. She could almost hear Rozzy screaming at her to put it down. She wished Leslie was with her, to give her the courage to play it, but Leslie was at school. She replaced the record carefully on the stack, exactly as before, and then, to erase her presence, walked backward out of the room.
She felt suddenly tearful with boredom. The day stretched ahead of her, long, dull, predictable and slow.
Her mother was usually very good for the first day or two of one of her daughters' illness, willing to play games and create small treats, but she'd been totally fed up yesterday--she'd retired to her bed with a sick headache as soon as her husband came home--so Agnes knew she couldn't expect any special attention from her today. She'd be on her own with coloring books and a daytime television diet of game shows and soap operas. A lump rose in her throat at the idea of her own loneliness. She shut her eyes, crossed her fingers, and wished with all her might that something different would happen today. Then she went downstairs.
The radio was playing in the kitchen; she could hear "Moon River" as she came down the stairs. Last year's most popular record, more like an atmosphere than a song. Leslie's mother would put it on the hi-fi sometimes when Leslie's dad got home, a signal that it was time for cocktails and grown-up conversations and children to disappear. The music made her think of a smell, something sweetish and unpleasant, like when the grown-ups had been drinking. It made her feel stifled and bored. The idea of growing up into someone who would listen to "Moon River" on purpose felt vaguely threatening. She could not imagine herself changing so much, no matter how large she grew.
"Moon River" was abruptly cut off, replaced by the flickering blurred sounds of other stations, and then by Sam Cooke singing "Twistin' the Night Away."
Agnes was filled with a mysterious, half-fearful joy. Who had changed the station? Her mother would never choose rock 'n' roll over Henry Mancini; she could be scathing about the twins' taste in music. And drifting through the air with the music was the smell of burning cigarette--something her mother had given up four years ago. She remembered her wish, and crossed her fingers again before she walked into the kitchen.
Sitting at the table, reading a paperback book, with the radio, a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee within easy reach, was Aunt Marjorie.
Marjorie's visits were never announced and never for long. Although nothing was ever said--indeed, her parents rarely mentioned Marjorie's name in her presence--Agnes knew her father didn't like his wife's twin sister, and she wasn't sure her mother did, either. The air of something forbidden clung to Marjorie like a personal scent. She was wildly unpredictable and deeply mysterious in her comings and goings. She was artistic, unmarried, without a job or fixed address. Her origins were in rural East Texas, but she preferred to stay in London, New York, San Francisco or Paris. Exotic words and places peppered her conversation. Often Agnes didn't know what she was talking about, but she rarely asked, too appreciative of being spoken to as an adult to risk spoiling the moment. She relished the sound of Marjorie's voice, clipped and rapid, with an accent that sounded almost English. It was very different from her sister's drawling Texas twang.
Now Agnes shrieked with delight and rushed to hug and kiss her aunt, greedily inhaling her smell, a combination of Joy perfume, cigarettes and coffee.
"Mind my cigarette! That's enough now, you little rascal--you'll crush me."
She let go at once, although reluctantly. Her aunt never hugged her, didn't like being touched, disapproved even more than her more maternal sister of "clinging" children.
"How long are you here for?"
"What sort of question is that? I've just arrived, and you want rid of me?"
"Nooo! I want you to stay forever!"
"Nothing lasts forever. I'm here now; can't you enjoy that without asking for more?"
Agnes wanted to please her aunt by agreeing, but she couldn't. Already, her pleasure was souring, turning desperate. It was always that way. She didn't understand why it happened, why she couldn't be happy with what she was given, but Marjorie's presence always made her greedy for more. Showing her need made Marjorie withdraw, which made Agnes feel even more needy, and she couldn't seem to learn to hide what she felt. "Why don't you ever spend the night? Why do you always go? You could sleep on the rollaway bed in my room with me. Please."
Marjorie regarded her steadily out of blue eyes so much like her mother's, so unmistakably not. "Don't think I don't appreciate the invitation, but . . . Your father wouldn't like it. Or your mother."
This was so unarguably true that Agnes couldn't say a word. She must have looked miserable, though, because Marjorie gave her an unexpectedly gentle smile. "I'm here now, sweetie. Enjoy. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."
"What does that mean?"
"There's a saying in Spanish which roughly translates to 'I give you a hug, and you ask for a squeeze!' It means to be grateful for what you've got. If you keep pushing and questioning and asking for more you're just setting yourself up for unhappiness. Which is silly, because it's so unnecessary. It's very easy to be happy. You can have whatever you wish for--as long as you accept the consequences." She turned her head slightly to exhale a plume of smoke, and then stubbed out her cigarette.
"What would you wish for?"
"Oh, I've already had my wish."
"Do you only get one?"
Her aunt considered. "Not necessarily. You can have as many as you like, as long as they aren't contradictory."
"Mutually exclusive. Two things that are so different they can't both exist at the same time. Like your mother. She wanted a family, wanted it more than anything. And she got it. She met your father, married him, had the twins, had you--but instead of being content with that she's gone on wishing she'd taken the other path she used to dream about. I suppose if she really was an actress now she'd be regretting the children she never had, and drinking too much or popping pills to soothe the loneliness. She got what she wished for but instead of being happy she keeps on looking that gift horse in the mouth, and dreaming about a career she is simply never going to have. She only makes a fool of herself, trailing around to every open call at the Alley."
Agnes felt the slow, poisonous seep of guilt that came with any mention of her mother's thwarted career. She could have been, should have been, an actress, and would have been if she hadn't met and fallen head-over-heels in love with Mike Grey. Her children had heard that story often enough from their mother. And it wasn't the twins who had truly settled their mother's fate--she had been so young when they were born, only nineteen, she would still have been young enough to embark on a stage career after they'd started school. Except that by the time the twins were at school all day, baby Agnes was on the way, putting an end to her mother's career plans. But the dream had not died, and every now and then Mary Grey would vanish to attend an audition, sometimes at the Alley Theatre, sometimes for a movie being shot in the area. There weren't that many opportunities in Houston for an actress, particularly an inexperienced hopeful now past thirty, but Mary Grey built her hopes up around every single one. Her husband seemed indifferent, resigned to Mary's little hobby, the twins were sarcastic and embarrassed by their mother's fantasies of an acting career, but for Agnes each attempt and each failure felt like her own fault. She wanted her mother to be happy, she wanted to be absolved from the blame of ruining her mother's life, yet she was terrified of the great changes that would follow if Mary ever got a job. It would be bearable if she landed a role in a production at the Alley, but what if she became a movie star? What if she had to move to Hollywood? Would her father leave his job, would they leave their house and friends and life that they knew here, or would Mary abandon them? She suffered her fears in silence, there was no one she could confess them to; only Leslie, her best friend, knew, and Leslie thought it would be "neat" to have a mother who was a star like Doris Day or I Love Lucy or Beaver Cleaver's mother--"Of course your mom won't leave you. You'd all move to Hollywood and meet all those famous people.
Maybe the Beaver would be your next-door neighbor!"
"Did my mom go to an audition today? Is that where she is now?" asked Agnes.
Marjorie gave a loose shoulder-roll of a shrug and picked a pill of wool off her black sweater.
Although physically identical to Mary, she inhabited her body in a different way. All her gestures were easier, more relaxed; she didn't sit or stand as straight. Mary was a fastidious, fashionable dresser concerned with every detail and matching accessory, but Marjorie's wardrobe appeared to be limited to black sweaters, mannish white shirts, plain black skirts or chinos. She always wore flat-heeled shoes which made her seem shorter than her elegantly turned-out sister.
"There's a Hollywood scout visiting Houston this week. Mary read about it in Maxine Messenger's column and there was no stopping her. Your mother doesn't seem to realize that it's not about acting talent--we're talking about a Hollywood talent scout, not Lee Strasberg, and to those guys talent equates with sex appeal. Pardon my French."
"He's not looking for actresses, he's looking for starlets. Pretty, sexy young things. Your mother might have qualified back in 1949, but she's thirty-two now, and that's way too old for the meat market. Sure she's kept her figure and she looks really good for what she is, but what she is ain't a starlet. But try to tell her that. Easier just to let her go, say, sure, I'll look after Nessie for you."
She felt a tingle when her aunt smiled and called her Nessie, she felt like someone different. Agnes didn't like her name, and "Aggie," which was the name Leslie and the other kids at school used for her, was no better. It sounded like someone gagging. Her father sometimes called her Nes or Nessie, but her mother didn't like nicknames and said that Agnes was a lovely name. It meant "pure."
"I wish," she began impulsively, but her aunt cut her off.
"Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."
Her tone was so sharp, as if Agnes was in real danger. She felt a thrill, and everything was bright and clear around her. Maybe this was it, at last, the moment like those in the stories she loved, when the fairy appears and wishes are granted. Maybe Marjorie was a fairy, or a good witch, able to work magic. It would explain so much that was mysterious about her.
"Will I really get what I wish for?"
"That's what I said."
"I mean right now, if I wish."
"If you really want it."
"I do." She thought of her dream, the way it had made her feel, how happy she had been. "I'd wish for my dream to come true."
Marjorie smiled. "Of course you would. What is it?"
"I had a doll that was really alive. I was so happy, I felt so good, just looking at it. It was looking back at me, and it was just about to talk--it said something, I can't remember what, but it could really talk!" She stopped, frustrated by her inability to describe what was so important about the dream. It wasn't just the doll, or what it could do--in fact, she found it hard to remember what the doll had looked like, exactly. The special thing was the way the doll had made her feel. It was the feeling she wanted to describe to her aunt, the feeling she wanted to recapture. The important thing about the dream--she realized it now more clearly than before--was that moment when she and the doll had looked at each other, the closeness that had linked them just by looking, even before the doll spoke.
Excerpted from The Pillow Friend by Lisa Tuttle. Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Tuttle. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.