At five it was hard to get me off the top of Barbie. When you’re the first boy born to a family of three aunts and a single mother, you don’t have much say about what gets handed down. Every afternoon I would take her to my bedroom for her nap. I would undress her and place her plastic body softly on a pillow, and then take off my clothes and mount her. Since my body hid her face from me, I stared at the poster of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders over my bed and picked a different cheerleader each session to focus on. My pee-pee was half the size of her body so I just rubbed it all over her, and it often hurt and got scratches, but I figured if I did it long enough love would come.
It wasn’t supposed to be right for a little boy to play with Barbies, but no one realized that I wasn’t playing with Barbie; I was nurturing her. I stole Grampa Duke's moustache comb and ran it through Barbie’s hair. I washed down her body with a damp cloth and apple shampoo. After, I filled my hands with baby oil libations and squeezed her through the tunnel of my grasped hand. I carried her in my back pocket and tucked in my shirt to hide her. I treated her well, and everyone knew it and was getting a little worried.
Holly was the first one to walk in on us. I was in my new bedroom in the alley behind City Market. My Spider-Man underwear was at my knees and my ass slapped the dank air of dirty socks and crayons. She was fifteen then, and already letting boys ride her like I did Barbie.
“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed after she entered my room without observing the “Chad’s Domain” sign. “Oh my god!” and then she started laughing and screaming for Aunt Amy to come and look. Holly and Amy were always visiting Mother in her new house because they were free to smoke cigarettes and meet boys there. When they babysat me we’d go to Ben Franklin’s dime store and steal art supplies and action figures for me, so I could have some toys for boys. “Chad’s screwing a Barbie!” It sounded so crude and base. I was trying to fill her with love, albeit unsuccessfully. It was the process of removing her clothes, combing her hair, licking her clean, and rubbing her down, which really counted.
I tore my eyes from Suzy on the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders poster, and looked back over my shoulder at Holly there with her hands on the doorway jams. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t stop. I just kept pumping her and pumping her while Holly laughed in the doorway, screaming for Amy. I looked Holly right in the eye and kept giving it to Barbie because I remembered that is what I saw Ragsy—LittleMan’s mutt—do when he was giving it to Gramma’s fox terrier, Lady. I had walked into the backyard on Roosevelt because Lady was screaming. I let out a scream when I saw Ragsy mounted on her rear-end. He just looked over his shoulder at me with a really dumb look. I guess he was confused that I was disturbing him and not leaving. And that is exactly what I felt. Why would she stay, all exposed in the doorway like that? Maybe she could have hidden in a closet and observed in order to learn something, but to just gawk on like that was really strange. Then Amy finally came and they were both there staring at me and laughing, like I was a scene in a cartoon that they had always wanted to see. And I thought of Ragsy and kept going until I was so excited that I peed all over her. A puddle formed on the pillow and overflowed to the linoleum floor and streamed toward Holly’s and Amy’s bare feet. They didn’t notice until the liquid heat touched their toes and they looked down. They looked at each other briefly, screamed “gross!” and let me alone.
I had never done that to Barbie before and I’m not sure if she liked it. But there was something about it that Holly liked because later that week she cornered me in the bathroom and put some mouthwash on her nipple because she knew I liked to pick the mint that grew in the flowerbeds the previous tenants had planted next to the house. I saved that mint in a plastic baggie and carried it around in my pocket—chewed it like tobacco. So when Holly put the mouthwash on her erect nipple, I naturally chewed it rather than sucked, and it wasn’t what she had in mind. She told me to do it as if I was licking the maple syrup off of a plate, and when the plate was clean, suck it like a pixie stick to draw out the sugar. I did all that, but sugar never came.
There were benefits to Barbie fucking. Somehow people knew I wasn’t naïve about humping and petting. I got a little more respect and people laughed and joked about me admiringly. I sat up late at night thinking about what they would say.
“That Chad is a quite a character,” Butch Testini would say shaking his head, smiling, and staring at the ground with a beer in his hand, trying to picture it all and reframe his own childhood. It made people feel good about themselves and their youth to know I was screwing Barbie.
“No fucking way,” Dane would say, “What a character. That Chad is alright.” He was saying this from the arms of my Aunt Holly who he held in the backseat of his car parked out at Canon mine. She didn’t tell him about the mouthwash though. And she told me not to either. Maybe this is the first time I’m talking about it, but only because I know it was no different than Barbie. It was just about trying to figure things out, how a prairie dog knows his hole from all the others, what is flotsam and what is jetsam. People never stop trying to figure these things out. Mother was still working on it, and that’s why we had moved again.
* * *
Depending on the slant of the Earth’s axis, we would roll up or down the hill that separated Iron River from Stambaugh. Now we rolled down again and came to a halt behind City Market. City Market was on the Main Street. It was no bigger than a living room and had one of everything you ever needed stacked in a metrical pattern that mimicked the generic stanzas of Longfellow. There was a butcher too. His name was Butch, and like any good butcher had a white fresh bloodstained apron with tiny animal hairs crusted into the fabric like hairy scabs. He smiled a lot and was considered quite handsome by the over-forty conservative helmet hair housewives who voted for Nixon. They wore polyester pastel colors and white pumps—smoked cigarettes with fake ivory holders. My Gramma kind of looked like this, but didn’t care much for politics and was liberal by nature, not by choice. Her preferred drink was a Bloody Mary, and for a long time I believed that blood was the main ingredient and never thought much of it. It matched her character, and anyway, all the women in my family were constantly bleeding and complaining about being “on the rag.” At five, you know that blood comes from somewhere, so you figure things out on your own: the women in my family drank too many Bloody Marys.
None of Butch’s admirers worked, just shopped and flirted with him. They kept houses in order and food on the table. The prescription seemed to work well since there was nothing else to do other than Friday Fish Fry and polka. But Mother and my aunts never read the instructions, and Gramma wasn’t a very good teacher, so they made the expectations of women up. Mother wanted someone to expect something from her, still, even after Eddy. All the women did for that matter, but you’d never know it if you heard one of their conversations:
“I said fuck that, I’m not putting up with his shit about wanting a good woman at his side when he rolls over in the morning. Get a real job and buy a good bed that’s not stuffed with hay and maybe a good woman will appear; wash your prick twice a day with laundry detergent too, it stinks from being stuck under your ass.”
If you wanted a man for more than a couple of days, this talk didn’t work. Nevertheless, it was fun to learn new vocabulary and I started to respect the boldness of speech, even though I would never want Barbie to treat me like that.
* * *
Mother was growing and growing like a plant in good light. But not like a hanging plant, more like an umbrella plant that doesn’t grow up or down, but out. She was trying to fill her stomach with meats and chocolates to satisfy her hunger for wanting to bust out of Iron River. At night she would wake me up and we would walk a couple of blocks down Main Street past the old City Hall, which was one of the few old brick buildings that was kept up. The others had either been torn down or abandoned, because since eighty percent of the population had left over a fifty-year period, there were a lot of empty rooms. The City decided that an empty lot was better than an empty building, so there were tons of places to park in Iron County, but not enough cars to fill the spaces. The City planted trees and put picnic tables around the perimeter of the lots to attract people to come and park, but this didn’t work either. Finally they just stopped tearing down the old buildings, and left them as some representation of an ancient mining civilization that once endured in these great lands of sweat and toil.
Walking at night with Mother, sometimes I would stumble in my partial slumber over the uneven slabs of pavement that the winter frost had unsettled. I stumbled in front of the Jack-O-Lantern bar, where black strippers from Detroit danced on the weekends. LittleMan and I had snuck out of our houses a couple of times and met by the trash cans in Roosevelt alley, and rambled all night down back alley wonderlands with stars stuck to us, puffing on old cigars the whole way. We were off to see the chocolate that his older brothers were always talking about. I had seen a lot of breasts, but never anything the color of a Hershey bar. We climbed on top of the trashcans in the back of the Jack-O-Lantern, and peeked through a crack in the window that had been painted black. Indeed the women were dark. We first caught site of the white in their eyes and then drew the rest of the wild curves with our gaze, which, at five, was respectful and not totally male. Their nipples were like cigar butts with aureoles resembling storm cloud banks. They were about the most beautiful “things” I had ever seen. Their teeth were brilliant, like the bleached white construction paper I used to draw pictures on, the ones I worked hard on and wanted to last. The darkest people in Iron River were the full-blooded Indians and some of the Italians, but the blacks never made it up here, and it was no wonder. The way the men inside the Jack-O-Lantern screamed at those girls would have sent me running home right away. But the women pretended to like it, probably because they knew they didn’t have to stay forever locked to the sick magnetism of Iron County. I thought it would be easy to fall in love with one of those women, but to the screaming men they were no different than the pictures LittleMan’s older brother Morrie had stashed between his mattresses.