Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Barbie Doll





This story was originally published on amwriting.org





                                                 (Art: Eric G. Thompson)


I’m late for my lunch meeting with Freddy. 
Bloody stupid traffic jam held my cab up, so I jumped out and walked along the last couple of blocks to Harvard Square. Of course I’m sweaty and exhausted by the time I get to the restaurant where we like to hang out, but he’s there, good soul that he is, and has held the table for us.
“Damnable heat,” are his greeting words, and he raises his hand to signal to the waiter.
“Fish and chips,” Freddy says, “Today I’m definitely going to have that.” 
It feels much too hot to think of food.
“What about you?” He hands me the faux-leather-bound menu. 
“Salad. Just salad.” 
Freddy is at his dapper best again. I’ve never yet seen him in anything but those striped shirts and bowties, in winter with a tweed jacket, in summer with a straw hat. 
We’ve been meeting like this for quite a while now, maybe three years or so. It has become a kind of ritual, always the same place, and nearly always the same meals, at least for Freddy. He flirts with the menu, announces he will pick something else, and then ends up with the fish and chips and beer.
“So,” he asks when the waiter steps away, “What news?”
He always asks that question, as if I know everything only because I’m a police detective. In fact he seems kind of greedy for the morsels I’m allowed to spill.
“Nothing much this week.” A girl brings a basket of bread and butter, and Freddy spreads the linen napkin on his lap. Very daintily he picks out a slice of the bread and begins to nibble on it.
“It’s summer break, nothing much is going on. Everyone else has left Cambridge. Sorry, no gruesome tales for you today.”
His face falls at those words. “Oh. Too bad. You make me feel connected to real life with your news, my friend. You know how it is.” With  wave of his hand he indictates the general direction of the university. “Living and working behind those walls is like living in a different dimension sometimes.”
Freddy works at one of the libraries, the Archives, but I’ve never understood what exactly he does there, and to be honest, I don’t really care. That campus, Harvard, has always seemed like a strange world to me. Just walking through those gates seems like an act of profanity if you don’t belong there.
“We did have a stalking case this week,” I say, more to keep him amused than anything else, “But it was just that, a dropped lover who wouldn’t let go. The fact that he spent a night in prison was enough to make him leave town. Case solved.”
Our entrees are served. My salad looks intriguing and delicious with its mix of greens and fruit, and the two thin slices of poached salmon.
Freddy rubs his hands in glee over his huge serving of fish. I know he won’t, like every Friday, be able to even finish half of it, but will have the rest packed and take it home in a doggie bag. I’ve always wondered if he maybe has a cat that’s looking forward to his leftovers.
“That’s not really stalking.” He bites into one of his fries. It’s so fresh that I can hear the crunch.
“What is?”
Well-mannered as always, he swallows before replying. “The guy you’re talking about. That’s not really stalking. If he leaves off after you caught him and even goes away, that’s not stalking.”
Intrigued, I put down my fork. “Not? How do you define stalking, then?”
Freddy leans back into his chair. “Oh, a real stalker would never let go, I think.”
“You think? Yeah, I think they do let go if you scare the living daylights out of them.” Amused, his attitude amuses me. As if a librarian knew about stalking. As if dapper, slight and intelligently witty Freddy knew about stalking. Right.
His blue eyes regard me with cool amusement while he brakes off a piece of fish and pierces it with the fork.
“Change tactics, maybe, but never let go.”
The way he says that sends chills down my back. “You think so? You think a stalker can be obsessed enough to outsmart the police?”
“Oh, dear boy, most certainly.” He draws his brows together. “Now if I were a stalker, I’d never let go of the object I adore.” 
A group of tourists stream in, chatting loudly in French, and a bright smile flashes across Freddy’s face. “Ah, Europe,” he sighs, “So cultured.” He puts down his fork. “Well, as I was going to say, if I were a stalker, I’d lay my plans carefully, go about it slowly, and never take a direct route.”
“You’re scaring me, Fred,” I say, and it’s true. 
But he gives me a grin and pats my shoulder. “Come on, dear friend, we’re just talking hypothetically, aren’t we. I get to read many books in my line of work, some more fun than others.” 
“Okay, then, tell me!”
“First of all,” he slowly says, “You have to understand the underlying motives for stalking. Why, do you think, someone turns into a stalker?”
Now that one’s easy enough. I’m not a detective for nothing. Before I can reply though, Freddy goes on, “A stalker doesn’t decide to become a stalker. Let’s say I was one. Let’s assume I was a stalker.” He points at our waitress. “When I was a little boy I wanted nothing more than a Barbie doll. I wanted one with long, blond hair, and beautiful dresses, and I wanted to play with her, dress her up, do her hair, slip those high heels on her little plastic feet. I even had cleared out a nook in my wardrobe for her stuff, and built a house for her over the summer holidays. My mother thought it was for a rabbit or hamster, but no, I wanted my Barbie doll to live in it. I think my mother got suspicious when I started nicking scraps of fabric from her quilting chest to put on the bed and windows of my playhouse. I drove me mad that she didn’t have anything I could use for carpeting! And lace. I needed lace for the sheets on my Barbie’s bed, and so I bribed my friend Sam to steal some from his mother, who was a quilter too. My mother asked me why I thought a hamster needed a bed with a lace sheet, but of course I didn’t tell her. My birthday was drawing close, and my only wish was for a Barbie doll.”
He breaks off to take a drink of beer and a bite of his  fish.
“Nice story,” I say. My appetite has gone away. His tale sounds too real for comfort.
Freddy shrugs. “It’s just a story. I’ve always thought of writing crime, and maybe you’re just now helping me to find the courage to do it!” 
After another bite he goes on, “So my ninth birthday comes, and there’s no Barbie. Of course there isn’t. My parents would never give me, their son, a doll. I could turn into a fag, right?”
His English words always sound so elegant and sophisticated to me. A naturally born gentleman, is Freddy.
“And there I am, a disappointed young boy who wanted nothing but some feminine beauty.”
His tale is beginning to be amusing. This isn’t exactly how a man turns into a stalker, at least not in my book, but his narration is entertaining enough, so I let him ramble on.
“Of course, over the next years, I grow out of it. Dolls and dollhouses were…not so much forgotten as pushed into the back of my mind. The girls I try to date? They are all images of Barbie. Of course not one of them is really EXACTLY like her. One is too short, one too tall, the other’s waist isn’t slim enough, and the next one doesn’t have enough chest. That one needs to lighten up her hair, and this one’s has too much curls. I’m looking for the perfect girl. The one perfect girl with cornflower eyes, rosy lips, long, wavy, golden hair and the figure of a doll. The one who would wear high heels even when on her way to the shower, and who’d never talk. Can you imagine Barbie talking? I can’t.” Again, he shrugs. “Or rather, I don’t want to imagine how that voice sounds. It can’t be anywhere near good enough to match her perfect body.”
The blond girl who brought us our food saunters over with a jar of water to refill our glasses, and Freddy measures her.
“This one?” he says, “She would need SO much work to make her perfect. But it’s summer break, and there’s not much material around, so she’ll have to do.”
“Do? For what?” 
“Oh, you know. I need a Barbie in my life.” He asks her for another beer, and she smiles at him. It makes him regard her through narrowed eyes until she gets impatient and walks away.
“So why not buy all the dolls you couldn’t have as a kid and put them on a shelf now? You know you can get them on eBay easily enough. You don’t have to imagine live girls as Barbies.”
“Boring.” Again, he shrugs me away. “I’ve grown out of that by now.” His eyes gleaming, he leans forward and rests his elbows on the table. “And I have the ideal job! I work in the vaults of Harvard, in its oldest parts, and there are rooms that are unused, never visited, totally forgotten. Everyone would believe that if it were in a novel, wouldn’t they? And it would make a really great setting!”
It would indeed. I have to agree on that. Before my mind’s eye I see dark, dank corridors, creaking metal doors, muddy light from flickering bulbs…pretty much like the murkier corners of an old warehouse. And right at the end where you think you can’t go any farther, Freddy’s secret chamber…and I realize he has succeeded in planting this vision in my mind. I’m scared for him to open that door. He’s insanely good at telling his tale.
“I’ve found a space in the bowels of our building,” Freddy says.
I have to blink and take a good drink of my tea. Now I know why I never watch CSI or Criminal Minds or anything like that. It’s so far away from my daily police reality it’s almost like a parody, but strangely enough, with Freddy’s tale, it seems so much more real.
“And that room, I turn it into a replica of my doll house. It takes me a couple of years, I have to be very circumspect. But one day it’s finished. And then, during one Christmas night when really no one at all is around, I bring in a doll. Not a Barbie, mind you, but a life-sized dummy that I found on eBay.” He grins at me. “I do know eBay. And isn’t it just cool what you can get through the internet these days? There’s nearly nothing you can’t buy.”
I’m torn between scoffing and asking him if he really did that. My skin is crawling. But hey, this is Freddy, I’ve known him for years, and I’d be the last he’d tell he’s a…
“What you’re describing, Fred,” I say, “That’s not stalking. That’s budding serial killing, my friend. Watch it, you may have to change your premises.”
Surprised, he stares at me. “Really? You think so? I’ve never thought of it as serial killing.”
For a few minutes he sits silently, musing. Then he shakes it off, as if he has decided that this is something that doesn’t fit into his story.
“Anyway,” he picks up his thread, “The mannequin is all good and well, but it’s not perfect. I want a perfect, life-sized Barbie, and so I start strolling across campus with a different awareness. I attend lectures, I go to the cafeteria for lunch, and I sit on benches around the area to watch girls walk by. Then one day…one day I see her. The perfect girl, Barbie come to life. And I know she has to be mine, has to be enshrined in the house I built for her at all costs. I must bring her down into that room that is now a shrine to her, and I must keep her there, until the end of days.” He tilts his head at me. “Or at least until she fades and isn’t Barbie at all anymore but just another plain, blond girl.”
“So what happens then? What happens when she turns into a real human being in your eyes?”
“Oh.” Freddie signals to the waitress. “She’ll have to go, won’t she. She’ll need to be replaced. Every toy breaks after a while and needs to be replaced. There’s not much to it!”
I have to ask. I just have to. It’s my instinct, and my job. “So what do you do with her, when you find a replacement?”
He’s signing the bill, but that makes him pause and look up at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Broken toys go into the trash, don’t they. What a stupid question.”

Outside, the air hits me like a hot, wet bedsheet when we leave the restaurant.
Freddy walks away without turning back, his hat at a jaunty angle on his head, his hands in his pockets.
My phone rings. It’s my partner, Jody.
“Dude,” she says, “You better get your ass moving. They just found a body in a garbage truck.”
“What?” The small word gets stuck in my arid throat.
Freddie is out of sight. I watched him walk through the arched gate into the campus just a second ago.
“A young woman. Blond, and quite pretty,” Jody is saying, “ Actually, she looks like Barbie Doll.”