The lunch bell rings and I set my brush aside, returning the unpainted porcelain Debby Doll head to the tray. A kettle whistles. Sarah runs to make the lunchtime tea.
“Thirty minutes and that’s all!” Mr. Denton barks at her as he hurries towards his production office, whacking his elbow on the filing cabinet as he slams the glass door shut.
The shocked moment of quiet is replaced by the delicate clinking of brushes against glass jars, chairs scraping on the concrete floor, and the idle chatter of the doll painters on their way to the break room.
Do you remember Denton’s Debby Dolls? The ones from the 1947 film “Ten Days Till my Birthday,” where Tammy James plays a little girl who got one for her birthday? Denton’s Debby Dolls Inc. make the dolls the same ever since. Tammy is well into her 80’s but is still loved and remembered for that tearful scene where she unwrapped the Debby Doll on her tenth birthday and said, “Well, gee, Mother, all I ever wanted was a Debby Doll!”
All I ever wanted was a Debby Doll but I didn’t get one on my tenth birthday. That year I moved from the city to Krumville, to Aunt Fay’s, and she said I was too old for dolls. She was a recovering heroin addict who hung photos of herself dressed as a vampire on all the walls. I was not allowed in the kitchen and had to eat my meals in my bedroom decorated with Aunt Fay photos. She said if I wanted a Debby Doll, I should petition the goddess Diana. I thought she was being funny.
Aunt Fay’s house was in the oak forest. She made oak dolls with hair from deer. The deer hair was arranged to look like human hair. She said these were petitions to Diana. Under an oak tree, Aunt Fay had an altar where she buried the dolls. Sometimes she burned them.
There were always gunshots in the oak forest. I never went outside that fall. In the city, there was shooting every Saturday night in our neighborhood and I was never allowed out. I don’t remember my city house much. One day Aunt Fay went outside and never came back in. Child Services came and took me away. I was now a ward of the State of New York.
What luck, I ended up in the same city as Denton’s Debby Dolls. When I turned eighteen, I went to work in the factory and I still do.
“Aren’t you coming to lunch?” Sarah asks.
“I’m working on my doll,” I whisper.
“Don’t let Mr. Denton see you doing that,” Sarah says. “He’s in a bad way today. I heard we’re 500K down this year. We have orders but there’s no stock. We can’t work fast enough.”
“I can tell Mr. Denton that I’m experimenting with new colors on my lunch break, which I am doing.” I stroke my Debby’s porcelain cheek with my pinky. “Look at her complexion. It’s lavender oil and China Pink pigment.”
“She’s not real, you know,” Sarah says. “I’ll bring you some tea.”
“Tea. Thank you.”
A year has passed since I’d first started working on my own Debby. I’d modeled what was to be the hollow shell of her head. Each hand painted layer and each firing was personally carried out by me. Today, I am ready to add the final details and fill her empty eyes. It’s ten days before Christmas. She’ll be my daughter, mine all mine. Mommy loves you, Debby.
There had been a man once, just once. He left a few hairs on my gingham pillowcase. And a legacy. My body changed in ways it had never before; swellings in places that had been unripe. Rosy cheeks, like a Debby Doll. I so wanted the child. Although I could not yet feel the child, I could. The growing presence of another life made me feel otherworldly.
But I was unmarried, alone, and I would lose my job when the baby came. Panic set in. It must have been eight weeks into the pregnancy when the fever came, followed by some mild cramping. During the night the cramping pulsed and intensified until I finally passed out. The next morning, the otherworldly feeling was gone. My unformed child had been born, its life over before it even began.
I forced myself up and out of the house, not wanting to be alone. I was working in the molding department that week and I would bear my child. From Denton’s secret mixture of minerals, bone ash, and alabaster, I poured the liquid clay. Before the first firing, I’d made a small imperfection on her cheek, like a chickenpox scar, so the other workers would reject her. I would always recognize my child. During lunch breaks, I stole moments to paint her face and sneak her head back to the kiln.
You’re here with me now, Debby, forever.
The lavender oil calms me as I blend your complexion to a natural sheen. I can almost feel your heartbeat. Light brown eye brows are added one hair at a time, your sense of humor. Would you like brown eyes like mine? Each brush stroke to your iris gives you another fleck of depth. Two dots of white on the left side of the iris ascertain your personality. I cover your eyes with high-gloss tears and now you have emotions. The creation process is almost finished.
See? I’ve made you a soft pellet body, into which I stitched your preserved mortal remains, hair from your Daddy, and oak bark—my petition to Diana. Your body lies hidden inside the top drawer of my workbench, along with your new gingham dress made from the pillowcase Daddy rested his head on. I forged a certificate from a midwife confirming your birthday, today, and your name, Debby.
Mommy’s here, Debby, don’t worry…
“What are you working on?” barks Mr. Denton. “Ten days before Christmas and you’re messing around with that B-stock? Those get smashed.”
I never saw him come up to my workbench. Debby, don’t cry, I’ll sort Mr. Denton out.
“You have a whole tray with these new dolls that have to be painted!” Mr. Denton’s face ran red. “You’ve been messing with that one since I came in!”
“Sorry, sir, it’s lunch,” I whispered.
Now Debby, be a good girl and get in my top drawer.
“You want to hide the thing as well! Is that a pellet body in there? Are you the one out selling B-stock on the weekends?”
“No, sir, I…experiment.” We may have to make a run for it, Debby.
“So, it is you! I’ve been told there’s a woman on the flea market every weekend with B-Stock Debby Dolls for real cheap. Give me that!”
“No, sir, don’t, you don’t understand…”
“Tea!” Sarah plunks my unicorn mug onto my workbench, brushes my Debby’s head into my top drawer, and slides it shut with her hip. She grabs my hand and pulls me up. “Come on, we got pizza and it’s getting cold.”