She was cradled in the crook of my arm to support her rounded back. We’d left her little motorized chair in the car, and despite its being summer she was dressed in one of her high-necked lace blouses and silver taffeta skirts because she was always cold now.
As the automatic doors yawned open, peach-scented air conditioning swept her knitting out of her stiff fingers and rolled it into the mechanized door tracks where it looked like a dust bunny.
“Oh!” she cried.
I picked it up and patted it back into her lap. “There there, Francie.”
I grabbed a tiny herringbone throw from the diaper bag and placed it over her knees, whispering into her fuzzy, gray hair, “We’ll just see what we need to do.”
As the doors shushed closed behind us, a candy-coated teenage voice called, “Welcome to American Dame!”
Francie looked up from her knitting and smiled tolerantly at the voice, then looked at me and rolled her eyes.
I’d read somewhere that they’d struggled with the name, and you could feel unsaid words lurking in the retail shadows.
Matron wouldn’t have worked since American Dame was meant to include childless women, like me. “For women who long to find and nurture that missing piece of themselves,” said the marketing. The missing piece was not a child, they claimed, but that’s how I’d initially heard it. What else could be meant by a missing piece?
Francie liked to call it American Hag. American Crone. Spinster. Witch.
I stopped to catch my breath and shift the diaper bag higher on my shoulder.
“You all right?” said Francie, brows wrinkling with concern.
“Oh I’m fine,” I said, though I was not. “Let’s see. Where do we need to go?” I peered up at the graphically slick signage proclaiming aisles for Career, Travel, Hobbies, Feminism, Wardrobe, and Lifetime Achievement.
The candy-coated voice skipped over to us, face squinting with a plump dewiness. “Can I help you?” She reached in and grabbed Francie’s hand. “Hi, honey! Oh, what a dear!”
Francie leveled one of her looks at the young woman, gray eyes becoming cold, wet ash. Her soft cheeks sagged into a frown. She put her knitting down with irritated little hands. “We are not in need of assistance, young lady.”
The young woman giggled. “Oh, you’re just darling!” she cried. Then she whispered to me, “Nursing has been moved back behind the yoga center.”
“Actually, we’re ready…” Here I choked up a little, something I’d hoped I wouldn’t do.
Francie caught my eye and gave me her no-bullshit look.
“We’re ready for the Passage with Dignity package,” I croaked.
“Ah,” said the young woman, voice lowered respectfully, hands church-clasped in front of her. “Then you’ll want Final Journeys, over near Medical.”
Francie nodded sharply and took her knitting back up, pearling two rows with quick rage.
“What do you think, honey?” Bob asked with tempered excitement.
The wrapping had just come off and I was still processing what it was I held, so I said nothing at first. That ancient feeling of childhood Christmas mornings competed with dread.
She blinked up at me from out of a box. I plucked out a glossy folded pamphlet nestled at her feet and skimmed through features, ignoring her searching gray eyes.
Shares hobbies, dreams, and advice
Loves bookstores, cafes, and films! Especially science fiction and fantasy!
Easy to travel with!
Fun to dress up, thousands of accessories for every stage
Sturdy storage and sleeping box may be outfitted with lovely bedding (An asterisk here explained that it was also suitable for her final rest, though a culturally diverse range of cremation packages could be purchased as well.)
“Well, pick her up,” Bob urged.
I looked into her eyes and she waved a tiny hand. I placed one palm behind her neck and one beneath her thighs and gently lifted her out.
She was wearing jeans, black Converse, and a nondescript t-shirt, just exactly what I wore most days. She smiled and my heart melted a little. I smiled tentatively back.
“See?” Bob said, grinning.
Our cat leapt off the back of the couch and into my lap, so I lifted her protectively.
Bob laughed. “Oh Dozie, don’t be jealous. Mommy has another baby now.”
Bob and I had always spent our Christmases the same way. We’d eat breakfast, open a few gifts, take a walk, nap. Then we’d order in Chinese food and watch movies, pausing at some point to have sex. I hadn’t been expecting anyone else.
She spent most of that day in a baby-carrier Bob wore to protect her from Dozie. He seemed newly invigorated by her presence, whistling contentedly as he made everyone coffee. She sat facing out, her long legs flopping in their cute Chucks. She smiled at me shyly, complimented the coffee, and tried to start conversations. It was just like what I’d do in similar circumstances, I mused.
But by the time we got around to Chinese food and movies, we were all quite comfortable with each other. She even recommended a few films for our next movie night and was delightfully knowledgeable about the Star Wars franchise. Over fortune cookies, Bob looked at me and said, “Well, whaddya think?”
I knew what he meant. It was time for a name. She knew too, I think, but, like me, wasn’t in the habit of inserting herself where she felt she didn’t belong, even in the matter of her own naming.
“Well, I think…” I said quietly, eyeing her. She’d taken all of our fortunes and was neatly pinching them together at the edges, trying not to look interested. “I’m going to name her- you, I mean… after my Grandma Frances.”
She looked up and smiled. “I love it,” she said as though she’d put the idea in my head.
The teenager retreated amiably to her station beside the door and Francie and I jutted our chins out and plunged into the current of the central aisle, bracing ourselves.
Soft pink and yellow lighting brought out the tableaux vivants to optimal effect. Dames posed as intrepid rock climbers, brilliant surgeons, astronauts. There was even a dame standing, arms crossed authoritatively, behind the desk of a small, perfect replica of the Oval Office.
All of the memories flooded back.
As we passed the Career section with its tiny suits and briefcases, miniature diplomas one could hang on miniature walls, I thought about how pleased I’d been to learn that Francie had come preloaded with her own moderately successful career. She was an acclaimed poet who wrote passionate defenses of the humanities that were widely shared on social media. So I’d started taking her to the American Dame Cafe to read her work, and it was always very well attended.
“I’d love to do what you do,” I’d blurted out one time.
“Would you?” she’d responded.
Embarrassed, I’d shown her some of my stories, and from then on she was always my first reader and best fan.
Upon the sale of a first story, she’d commanded me to buy a bottle of champagne. Riding home from the liquor store in her infant car seat, she’d clutched it happily in her arms. And, despite everything else that was going on then, I’d cranked an old punk song and shouted along like a maniac. We’d gotten roaring drunk, and the next day Francie in particular had looked about a decade older.
Now craning to look at the cafe as we passed, that site of so many literary triumphs, she muttered, “Hm. New seats.”
I took the opportunity to veer from the aisle and brought us to a table. There were narrow but very tall chairs with ladders, rungs sized to accommodate dolls’ hands and feet. I placed her in one and sat down, expectant, hopeful this place might change her mind. She’d reconsider this path. She’d propose a movie instead.
“Look, Francie. You won’t have to sit on my lap anymore. Aren’t these new chairs great?”
She sat rigid and stared forward, urging me to understand that she was disappointed in me.
I ignored her and looked past the lectern where the space seemed newly elongated, stretching out in a brightening shaft, the far wall dissolving into a sidewalk scene where bodies hurried by busily in a silver rain and dames were silhouetted, drinking citron pressé and coffee.
“A Paris cafe scene? How charming!” I exclaimed. “They’ve really renovated this place. So high tech.”
“If something so fake can be charming,” Francie muttered and notched her fingers together. “This wretched place, all these fools pretending at life, using dolls to do the things they can’t.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” I said quietly.
“Pick me up please. I’m too tired to make it on my own.”
The year after Francie came to me, when Bob got so sick and was spending more time in bed, I started drinking heavily and sleeping out in the yard, unable to endure the smell of him, the whistling, labored breathing. His thinning muscles and papery skin.
Perversely, I began stumbling out the back door to the grove of rosemary bushes and lavender I’d once thought would be the ideal place to labor if I had ever become pregnant.
I would stare up at the stars and light pollution and cry myself senseless, letting the police helicopters strafe me with searchlights. I’d wake up in the morning mosquito-bitten and stiff as a dried-out board.
Nevertheless, every morning I went to my job at an insurance company. The anthropology teaching jobs had all dried up and the only work I could find was creating protocols and lists of Best Human Practices so that the company could rate their customers’ lives on risk scales.
I’d come home from this every day feeling like a giant old pencil eraser had rubbed out all but my outlines.
One night, as I lay in the yard, Francie came pushing and marching through the herbs. She crawled up onto my chest and slapped me hard across the mouth. “Pull it together!” she whisper-screamed. Shocked, I sat up and she stood back, tiny fists on her hips.
“Oh Francie,” I wailed, “he’s all I have!”
“Wrong,” she’d seethed. “You’re all he has. You have me. This is why I’m here.”
“What? What do you mean?”
But she simply took my hand in her petite little raccoon claws, and I began to feel the fury getting grounded, dissipating.
And that was the first time I noticed how she could take my terror into her own body and sink it there like toxic sludge in sand.
Francie would let me do her hair. It was the same auburn with threads of gray as mine. I’d French braid it, or put it in pigtails with brightly-colored plastic bands I bought at the drugstore.
I watched it change, getting grayer and wiry, light as wisps of shredded fiberglass.
I made her clothes and built her a small house in the backyard were she liked to read and write. Bob, who was then in remission, did the carpentry. To my very fussy specifications, he made her a desk that looked out on the herbs so she could watch giant praying mantises, green iridescent beetles, and leaves that were, to her, the size of beach umbrellas.
“We have to get this just right, Bob. Writing is her passion,” I told him.
Sometimes I’d sit on the patio and just watch her working, writing in her journal, typing feverishly, reading with her feet up on her desk. I’d bring her tea and bourbon. I urgently wanted for her to have everything she needed for her art.
Bouncy, inspiring music wafted through the retail space like yet-to-be-spooled cotton candy. Francie hummed minutely along with it, looking perkier than she had in the cafe and seeming to have forgiven me.
As we walked past the Wardrobe department, the memory of our first big fight crashed into my head.
One day I’d noticed she had retired her Chucks and begun wearing sensible shoes. I managed not to comment, though it pained me. But when, shortly thereafter, she began selecting high, laced collars and long skirts in the Seniors aisle of the Wardrobe department, I pitched a fit.
“Is this really what you want to wear?” I snickered.
“Yes,” she said, glaring at me. “Why?”
“A little Victorian, don’t you think?”
Nearby customers glanced over at our raised voices. Other women clutched their dames who were sporting stylish pant suits, printed scarves, heels, and even mini-skirts. I was furious. “This is not what I had in mind,” I hissed violently.
“Even the people closest to us can surprise us sometimes,” she said. “Imagine if you had to deal with a teenager!”
“I’d prefer that!” I shouted. “This is so fucking old. I thought you liked fashion.”
At this point, we’d done some traveling together. We’d bought each other Spanish boots and Swedish clogs. We’d purchased matching violet Hello Kitty backpacks in Harajuku. But none of these things had come out of her dresser in a very long time.
“This is what I like now. People change. I’m not particularly fond of my décolletage, for your information. And I quite like lace. My body, my choice. If you want to get a mohawk and a tattoo, go right ahead. Live your own life.”
Bob died not long after that fight. The cancer came ripping back with a vengeance. This time, I stayed in bed, stroking his forehead like I always imagined I’d do with the child we’d never had.
We were able to afford in-home hospice because he had a very high Best Human Practices rating, even with the cancer, so when they transformed our bedroom into a hospital room, I pretended the blinking lights were the dashboard of our spaceship.
I marveled at my ability—as though standing outside myself—to let a person die next to me. I thought distantly, So this is what it’s like. This is what it is to hold the hand of your best friend as the life and heat leaks out of them.
In my anticipation of the event, I imagined I would rip the bed up, take a hammer to it, a lighted match. I’d howl at the moon. But I did none of these things.
After the funeral and a small gathering, as Francie and I sat before the fire in the vast emptiness of what had once been a cozy, modest living room, pans of half-eaten, grey-tasting casseroles scattered about, I asked her, “What did you mean that time?”
“About… this is why you’re here?”
She ignored this question and asked me one instead, as was her way. “Why did you name me after your Grandma Frances?”
Swallowing down irritation, I answered. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because she was the one who gave me dolls. Every year for birthday and Christmas. And I guess… I always thought if I had a daughter I’d name her Frances.”
“Hmmm,” Francie mused.
“Now how about answering my question.”
“You’re an anthropologist, don’t you know? Some dolls are meant for times like these.”
I took another sip of camomile tea and watched the fire’s breath play Francie’s wispy, silver hair. I said, “What, that… dolls are miniature versions of ourselves? Humans develop through play? All that?”
“That and… other things too.”
I looked at her. “What do you mean?” I was being intentionally obtuse, I knew. I hadn’t yet admitted it to myself, but the truth of what Francie was, what I’d made of her, was dividing cells inside me and beginning to make itself known. But I wanted her to say it.
“A doll is a twin, a double, someone to attract and absorb evil that may have otherwise come your way during dangerous times. And maybe also hold on to things and ideas for you so they don’t get lost.”
She slid off the couch and went to stoke the fire. “And sure, we try things out for you, help you imagine yourself differently.”
But Francie was not like the dolls I’d played with as a girl. The main point of them always seemed their appearance, whether I was dressing them in glamorous gowns and punching little diamond studs into their ears or, in later years, shaving their heads and swapping their body parts. They were cheap physical propositions, theories to be tested.
With Francie, what I wished to see play out was an ideal internal life. I’d sit in a low deck chair on the patio, sipping wine and watching her literary life in the miniature house bloom and unfold without anxiety or interruption. I took pride in it and would stop to arrange a lock of her hair, or scrub a smudge off her cheek.
When Francie had first come to me, we seemed the same age. Soon, though, I couldn’t pretend that she was not accelerating along her trajectory, first years and then decades ahead of me. Everything about her was fast. She was prolific with her work, no nonsense in decision-making. She was up before the dawn and late to bed at night. She learned everything without effort.
Soon, I watched her enter peri-menopause. “No big deal. Icy drinks, popsicles,” she told me. “Lots of exercise. Sex. Erotica. Yoga. Organic food. You’ve just gotta keep everything limber and well-oiled.”
It is hard to express how much relief these demonstrations brought me. Everything that would eventually happen to me would have a labeled shelf, a set of numbered boxes in which to catalogue them and lay them to rest. For, I could see now that I was passing through the same stages as Francie, just a few long paces behind and well-buffered. Idly, I wondered if I would eventually develop Victorian sartorial tastes.
When her hot flashes finally faded, she seemed to settle into an especially regal version of herself. She took to wearing her hair in a poofy but neat bun and reading glasses around her neck.
Everything seemed fine.
But one evening, I came home from work and couldn’t find her. I went out to see if she was in her office. But it too was empty, the little desk lamp off. I called her name.
I went to the clearing in the herbs and found her lying on her back, staring up at the sky, blinking, dissected buds of lavender strewn over her silver gray skirt. Her hair fanned out around her head, white amid the red and orange leaves.
“Why didn’t you answer me, Francie?” I asked, annoyed.
Fear knifed through me. I came down slowly and sat beside her. “You,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Oh,” she said as the confusion that had fogged her face moments before evaporated. “Sorry, I’m just so tired.”
We went into the house and, as we started dinner, she told me about how full-up she was, how her body was turning to glass and paper, becoming inert. She’d taken all she could for me.
“It shouldn’t be long now,” she said.
I was enraged. I burned myself, almost intentionally, on the pasta water. I sputtered out meaningless, unfinished sentences. “Who will I have now? After you’re gone, what do I have? A horrendous job and this stupid old body!” Finally, I shouted, “Dolls aren’t supposed to die!”
“All we ever have is our own stupid bodies,” she’d said very calmly. “But jobs can be gotten rid of. Now help me finish this sauce.”
We passed the yoga center and observed women and their dames all engaged in downward facing dog. I envied them. They would finish their practice and then go have a light dinner and see a movie.
“The next Star Wars is just a few months out, you know,” I said, failing to keep desperation from my voice. “You could stick around until then, couldn’t you?”
Francie said nothing, as though she hadn’t heard, as though my voice was just part of the insipid soundtrack now.
Arriving at the counter, we could see over in Nursing the convalescing dames in their little beds or seated in comfy chairs next to windows with leafy green views. Some played checkers or bridge.
A young woman appeared. “How can I help you?”
I froze, speechless, so Francie took over. “Our time is at hand,” she announced, which I thought was rather an ominous way of putting it.
The young employee looked at us, expecting further explanation, so I said, “We’re interested in the Passage with Dignity package.”
“Oh, I see,” the young woman whispered and nodded swiftly. She turned to open a cabinet. I watched all her movements with dread, thinking them too fast. She pulled out a little envelope and placed it on the counter. “Okay, let me just…” and she took Francie out of my arms.
A tear rolled down my cheek. From the young woman’s arms, Francie stared at me, through me.
The woman lifted Francie’s poof of gray hair and touched the back of her neck. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m not sure… Did you purchase this doll here? Or, perhaps from a knock-off dealer? Or…” The woman blushed.
“Um, why?” I asked and Francie continued to stare at me, her eyes looking suddenly black.
“Well, there’s no…” She lowered her voice even further. “There’s no serial number.” She turned Francie around quite gently so I could see.
“Is there supposed to be? My husband bought her.”
“Yes, see,” she said. “Right here at the base of the neck, there should be a number.”
I stared at her and picked Francie up again, frankly relieved to have her back in my arms, though she felt stiff. The woman took up the packet from the counter and placed it back in the cabinet. “I’m afraid we can’t administer end-of-life services to a doll that’s not one of our own. I’m sorry.”
Out in the parking lot, Francie mumbled, irritated. “Ridiculous. I’m just exactly the same specs. Fit all their clothes, accessories. Everything. Ridiculous.”
I didn’t speak all the way home. I didn’t know what to say. When we pulled into the driveway, Francie said, “We have everything we need. It’s simple. And you have that syringe still, yes? From Bob?”
“What are you talking about?” My hands shook on the steering wheel.
“I need you to help me die, that’s what I’m talking about. The worst is over now. It’s safe to take things head-on. Take some responsibility. Release me.”
I watched her get down and shuffle into the house, still mumbling to herself.
I sat in the car for a long time staring at the facade of our house and there was a quality to it I’d never seen before, almost like an old photograph of someone I’d once known well but who’d moved on and probably forgotten me. It was a house located somewhere in the past. Take responsibility, I heard it say.
All at once I recalled a note that had come with one of my childhood dolls, written in my grandmother’s hand. It is natural to give these dolls your rage and the pain of growing up, it said. Let them take some of the immediacy. But they’ll rot with it and will need to be destroyed in time. Be merciful, it concluded.
When I finally came inside, Francie was up on her stool, rummaging through food in the pantry, dragging pots onto the stovetop with her voluminous skirts all tied up like old-fashioned riding bloomers. She’d been out in the yard already. There were piles of sticks, herbs, a neat stack of leaves, a tumble of dead green beetles.
She flipped through a small black book I’d never seen.
“What, dear?” She turned and glared at me over her reading glasses.
“I can’t… Please don’t… I’m so sorry. You’re so much more to me than that.”
“Oh, it’ll be fine, love,” she said, smiling warmly. “It’s just that I’ve been ready for some time. And you’re ready.”
So there I was on a summer evening, out in the back yard in front of a fire pit, holding a tiny, elderly version of myself in my arms and weeping.
Francie had cooked the serum and loaded it into the syringe. She’d said, “We’ll wait for the new moon. That’ll give us a couple more days together and then, poof! And it’ll be harder for neighbors to see the smoke. Anyway, they’ll just think you’re burning yard trash.”
But we didn’t need the syringe after all. She declined rapidly in our last days. She sat in my lap and let me braid her hair as she watched large bugs ambling by or the sudden showers of water drops off leaves.
She began insisting she was not Francie. She was Bob’s cancer and my failed career, she said. She was my daughter, of course, the one that would never ever be. She said she was a collection of expectations and theories never put into action. She was debilitating anxiety and disappointment.
She was all the dark and dangerous thoughts that had hurled or inched toward me during our time together. She was Bob’s cessation of breathing and my skipped heartbeat. She was the creeping through the house with a lighted match, the impulse to scald with the teapot, the pills in the medicine cabinet.
She said she was out of her mind now, floating above herself somewhere. She was a cabinet of small drawers in which to put all these facts, which could be taken out later and considered dispassionately. She was a version of me.
Then she grew quiet, curled up one last time, and died.
In the pause that ensued, I braided her hair tightly as though to secure it against storms, high winds. I washed her brittle body with warm, lavender-scented water, dressed her in her favorite silver skirt and blouse, her little sensible shoes. I wrapped her in her herringbone throw. Then I placed her light, fragile body atop the fire. It was gentle, not roaring.
The smoke carried us up into the black, starry sky.
After a little while, in the hushed night, I began to hear the tink, tink tink of small hard things falling like hail on leaves and stalks of grass, on the roof of her little house.
I got up and walked through the yard, collecting shards and placing them in my pockets as I went.