About Irene

by Cher Bibler


My owner is getting old. There’s no use denying it anymore, it’s time to accept it as a fact. It’s time to start worrying about my future.

I’ve lived here many years and have been very happy. The idea of leaving my friends and starting over somewhere else is so frightening that I’ve put off thinking about it as long as I could. I can’t avoid it anymore, though, it hangs over everyone here like a dark cloud, colors everything we do.

I was having tea with my friend Rebecca a few days ago, and I guess that’s what started me off. I like Rebecca, but she’s a worrier, and she can just drive me crazy if I let her. She lives on a shelf by the kitchen, and she loves to entertain. She has a nice little nursery rhyme tea set. I suppose it’s a little juvenile, but I just love it – it reminds me of my first owner, a sweet little girl named Amelia. I find it comforting. Rebecca’s ok, too. A little persnickety, if you want to know the truth, but I overlook that.

Rebecca has easy access to all sorts of goodies, being so near the kitchen, I suppose, and she always knows what’s going on. She has myriads of relatives, all in some sort of disrepair or decline, and she worries about them all. I’ve heard so much about various cousins, I feel I know them personally. They’d be surprised, I’m sure, if they knew how much I know about them. When I finally do meet one, I have to bite my tongue to keep myself from blurting out something like, “Oh, you’re the one who broke out in hives when they restuffed you with unseasoned sawdust!” I have to wipe the smirk off my face and be polite. Sometimes that’s not so easy.

Rebecca was going on about Sasha’s illness (Sasha is our owner), and wailing about where she’ll end up and how she’ll feel if she is separated from her children. I felt a bit guilty, I guess, as I am assured a good home no matter what, but Rebecca’s future is rather doubtful. She’s so dreadfully common, you see. There’s nothing at all special about her. I, on the other hand, am rather rare and generally considered attractive. Someone always seems to want me. I sipped my tea in silence, listening to her fret about our impending upheaval.

Rebecca doesn’t have a shred of her original clothes. She’s dressed in something that’s supposed to look like it’s as old as she is, but it’s all the wrong fabric, the wrong weight. And polyester lace. Need we say more? I don’t think Rebecca ever had any really good clothes, though. Something about her, I don’t know what, but she has a certain downtrodden air.

It all left me rather depressed. I keep thinking about my friend Irene, who stood near me on a little stand by the stairway. I was (and still am) higher up, on a barrister bookcase. A lovely oak, which brings out the red highlights in my hair. Irene and I spent years and years there together until the unfortunate day when she fell and was broken, was swept away into a box and taken away somewhere. I waited for her to be glued back together and return triumphantly, but she hasn’t. Eventually they put a new doll on her stand, a reproduction. I think someone in Sasha’s doll club made her, her face paint is just awful and her eyes are set in. Her clothes are too frilly and rather garish. It’s bad enough a different doll is standing there, but a reproduction?

I don’t even speak to her. I suppose she has a name, but I call her the Usurper. There she stands in Irene’s spot, smiling just as though she belongs there. She tried to talk to me a few times, but I didn’t answer, just stared straight ahead as though she weren’t there.

I’m sure Sasha would never have put a doll like that in Irene’s place. It was her daughter that did it. The daughter is over quite often anymore. She doesn’t know very much about dolls. I suppose she was trying to be nice, filling the hole where Irene used to be, but I can’t tell you what it feels like, standing here day after day looking at the spot where my best friend used to stand and seeing her there.

If Irene doesn’t come back, which seems doubtful, I’m afraid of what will happen. She’s laying somewhere in pieces, in a box, and the rest of us will all be sold, scattered to the winds. It makes me feel fragile, myself. We all like to feel immortal, I think, but every now and then we get reminders of just how uncertain our futures are. It’s just something that I guess is always somewhere, pushed to the very back of our brains because we don’t want to think about it. How morbid we’d be, after all, if all we did was think about breaking!

But there are days you can’t help thinking of it, and on top of that, I miss Irene like anything. There is a big hole in my life where she used to be.

Irene was such a beauty and she had the most incredible wardrobe. She was German, but it’s not as though she could help that. There are a few good German dolls. It was her personality I loved. She was so wicked. We used to stand here together and point out to each other the fashion faux paus of everyone around us. Sometimes with just a knowing look and a lifted eyebrow. I know it sounds cruel and we should remember that not everyone was raised with our advantages, and that some people truly can’t afford to dress any better than they do, but oh, did we laugh! One needs a friend one can laugh with. How I miss Irene!

I hate to imply that people are stupid, but that’s the main thing I notice now that I don’t have Irene. No one has her quick wit, her intelligence. I get tired of explaining myself to other dolls, spelling things out step by step by moronic little step. A joke isn’t funny anymore after all that. You practically have to pay people to laugh.

I wonder what will happen to her clothes. She and I were about the same size, though my hips are wider. I am sure, though, she would want me to have her things. Who else but me? I was her best friend! And it’s been ages since I’ve had anything new. Irene just had the most beautiful things. She stood right there by the steps and was much fawned over (it would’ve made you positively ill, if she hadn’t been such a devil!). I suppose that made her pretty vulnerable. I’m much safer here, on top of my bookcase (and somehow I feel guilty about that, even though I had nothing to do with picking out my spot!).

I used to be so jealous of a certain velvet hat with feathers that hung down and framed her face. It seems rather petty now, however. What a beauty she was! I used to picture myself in it. It’s not as though I don’t have clothes of my own, but you just can’t seem to help wanting more. The dark green velvet would go so well with my reddish hair, though, don’t you think?

I am quite old, you know. It’s not polite to ask a girl her age, but I see no sense in having secrets here. I’m over one hundred fifty years old! I am much better made than most. Though anymore that’s not saying much. Have you seen the dolls they’re making today? It’s hard to stand here and watch as the dollmaking and dressmaking arts are forgotten. Plastic! My God! Whoever thought dolls should be made of something like that? Whoever invented it should be shot! The poor dolls. I try to remind myself that they can’t help what they’re made of, but I can’t quite bring myself to associate with them. One has to have some standards, you know.

They have quite forgotten how to make dolls today, and no one cares. One day all the dolls became plastic and no one noticed. No child stood up and said, “I refuse to play with a plastic doll!” Not one soul. It’s like they were drugged, like they were hypnotized into thinking they weren’t worth anything better.

My friend Tina just laughs at me. She says I worry too much. She says we should look ahead to all the adventures we’re yet to have. She could be right. She’s a happy-go-lucky sort of doll, though I have to wonder about her sometimes.

Tina says life is easier with a drink in your hand. Easier still with a drink in each hand. I’m not sure there’s anything between her two ears but sawdust.

Tina is in love with an absolute reprobate, a veteran of the First World War still wearing his uniform. It’s in tatters, but he doesn’t care. A little battered tin hat. He’s just a wreck. Drinks way more than is good for him. I like my glass of wine, too, but I know when to stop. He’s always three sheets to the wind, and treats Tina like a shopgirl. A common everyday sort of girl. Does she care? Oh no, matches him drink for drink most nights. Sings harmony when he’s caterwauling some off color song. Throws her arms around his derelict friends and treats them like long lost brothers.

Men are scarce around here, but one must maintain one’s dignity, don’t you think? She’s not holding up too well from all her years of racketing around. My idea of fun isn’t exactly a cup of tea with Rebecca, but I’d rather sit and listen to the woes of Rebecca’s huge, unlucky family than go whoring around with a group of patched up has-been soldiers. When exactly was that war over? Isn’t it time to move on with your life?

Though when Tina’s on her own, she’s quite a hoot. And I do get a vicarious little thrill listening to her adventures. I go out with her sometimes, but things can get a little wild for me (I thought I was fearless before I met Tina and her crew). There is nothing like a disillusioned WWI vet, the lost generation, isn’t it? Nevis is forever quoting Rupert Brooke. He’s a bit of a scholar, but you wouldn’t guess it to see him most days. You can’t help thinking if it weren’t for the war and all the drinking, he could really have done something with his life. But Tina says look ahead, don’t worry about the past. She thinks Nevis is fun; she forgives him all his black moods and nasty tempers and his vicious tongue. She says you just take him as he is. But why the world has to bow down and conform to Nevis when Nevis doesn’t show the slightest consideration for anyone else is beyond me.

If life were fair, he would’ve been the one to fall off that perch beside the stairs and not Irene. He would’ve been the one in pieces in a shoebox. Not my dear Irene.

I’ve been around a long time. I am embarrassingly old. I have lots of memories, and some days I just can’t help losing myself in them. I suppose I could drown in them, like Nevis, but I’m not like that. Sometimes I worry, sometimes I get depressed, but I always bounce back. Sometimes it takes longer than others, but I always do.

I’ve been happy here. Sasha was very good to us. I like my spot on the bookshelf; I enjoy quite a view up here, far away from the hustle and bustle. I’m glad I’m not behind a glass door; I’d be bored witless. I’m a people person, I have to get out and gadabout. I thrive on good conversation. Good conversation laced with a little good gossip, you know. I am so bad. No halo here!

Somewhere in this house, I have a whole trunkful of the loveliest things, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at me. I’m two steps up from looking like a beggar on the streets. All I need is my tin cup and pencils for sale. A patch over my eye. A pegleg. A crutch to hobble through the streets with. A ragged blanket to throw over myself at night. A heel of stale bread to nibble on.

Though, who notices when we are all in the same boat? And to be perfectly honest, most of the folks around here are two steps closer to street life than me. I flatter myself I take much better care than most. I’d certainly like a bit of pampering, but I don’t have loose arms with bits of sawdust sifting onto the floor, right through my clothes. Like some people I could name. We are a sad lot.

For the last three years, I’ve worn my faded blue silk dress. It’s in pitiable shape now, but it was lovely once, long ago when it was new. That was, oh, how many owners ago? Once I was an actual toy and belonged to a little girl. She was very careful with me, though, which must be why I’m so desirable and valuable now. I loved her very much, my Amelia. I try not to think about her much. Just keep looking ahead! She didn’t make the dress; however, it was a gift from her aunt. It was my best dress at the time and I had a little fur cape and handbag to go with it. The cape got lost ages ago. I had some blue leather boots, but they fell apart. I haven’t had a comfortable pair of shoes in eighty years! They knew how to make quality stuff back in my day. I hate to tell you how much time was spent on my lace. None of this store-bought stuff. Polyester. What is that exactly?

Once I changed my clothes on a regular basis. Once I had my hair washed and done, and my face cleaned and my makeup fixed, and all the things that are supposed to happen to a girl as a regular ritual.

I haven’t been out in the real world in a long time. A few shows before that. You may not know this but I was quite a ribbon winner in my time. It was a lot of bother to be entered into a competition, but I did so love getting out and meeting new people, mostly people I’d never see again. I would spend a few days with them and I would talk and talk and talk. And laugh. I would tell total strangers things I wouldn’t dream of telling my friends. Odd, isn’t it? Then I would be on display and a constant crowd of people came peering at me and guessing my age and all sorts of things that a girl should have the privilege of keeping to herself. Are those my original eyes? I ask you. Would you look someone right in the face and ask them if it’s their real hair? Gees! It’s as though they didn’t notice me standing there!

It’s always nice to come home and know that you were Best of Show for a weekend, that you have what it takes and that there’s no one here who can hold a candle to you. Except maybe Irene, even if she was German. There are good German dolls, you know. She was such a beauty.

A reproduction. I don’t know what Irene would say if she could see the doll they put in her place. However, if she were around to see it, we would be giggling our heads off at how funny she looks. I can’t laugh by myself, though. I look at her and think about Irene.

I suppose if I weren’t missing Irene so dreadfully, and she hadn’t moved into Irene’s place, I wouldn’t care. I mean, I wouldn’t associate with her, but I wouldn’t care. Doesn’t she know she doesn’t belong here? I’d like to think Irene is still coming back, but it’s hard to convince myself with the Usurper standing there. I picture us all falling one by one, and being replaced by ugly modern dolls. It’s chilling.

I have lived many lives. I’ve generally been happy. I’ve lived with many people I’ve been happy with. I can’t say every single minute of my life has been a joy, but I’ve been very lucky, considering I started out a toy and was owned by a child and played with (albeit carefully) and loved and never felt I deserved better. Many years I was packed away, as my child grew old and forgot about me. I laid there dreaming. It’s hard to describe; it’s hard to measure time when you’re dreaming. The world was different when I came out. I was different. I was treated differently. As a curiosity, rather, no longer a loved companion. But then, I am very vain; I enjoy being looked at, and I’ve always been prized. I am quite lucky. Good genes, you know. I am content.

Where the moon stood too close to the edge

Look at the place where the moon
used to be; there’s a hole burned
in the sky, the slick fabric
opaque and colorless there, the
dusty clouds hurrying to cover the
spot. The sun tries to rise through
a crack in the shell;
rose and magenta come spilling past us.
Worn fingers rush to mend the
tear before she sees it,
where the moon stood too close
to the edge.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

From the novel, About Irene, available at Amazon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Artist Samuel Barrera


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