A fat and juicy cockroach scurries up the wall in the bathroom. This one is bold, a Burt Reynolds of cockroaches, and just as hairy. The cockroaches are cocky in The Apartments. My mother has trained me as her young assassin. I’m the spotter, a member of an elite sniper team of cold-blooded cockroach killers. I’m four years old, second in command now that my father has left. I’m not sad about his leaving because I’m not aware it has happened.
We live in The Apartments. They are never referred to as Home. When it’s time to leave somewhere, we say it’s time to go back to The Apartments. The Apartments are down the street from where my grandmother lives. She takes care of us while my mother works.
The Apartments are a fortress, a brick penitentiary with guards that watch from lookout towers. At least, it always feels like someone is watching. I count the stumpy shrubs that line up two by two along the sidewalk. My mother grips my forearm and power walks us to the door, balancing my baby sister in her left arm, glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one is following. I look fat as a Christmas ham in the layers of shirts and jackets and scarves my mother has bundled me in. There are eight shrubs.
In our bathroom, there is black fuzzy mold growing between the aqua-puke tiles. Even though my mother regularly wields a can of bathroom cleaner, the mold is a permanent part of the grout. I’m excited that I can reach the sink now. Look, I can wash my hands without a step stool. My mother warns me not to lean against the towel bar because it’s coming out of the wall. She scrubs the grout harder. My sister says Ba for bottle, and Ma for mom, and Da for no one.
The only thing I want in life is a Teddy Ruxpin doll. My mother says I don’t need it because I have her to read stories to me. But what she’s really saying is she doesn’t have the spare equivalent in today’s dollars of one-hundred and seventy bucks to drop on a talking bear. We’re making it paycheck to paycheck on her department store salary, and The Apartments are eating half of that check every two weeks. Cockroaches gotta eat.
Teddy Ruxpin weighs seven thousand pounds. He has three servo motors under the hood, operating the eyelids, nose, and lower jaw. There’s a circuit board, a full-size cassette player, a speaker, and four D batteries. He runs smooth as a Lamborghini fueled on stripper glitter.
Burt Reynolds crawls up the aqua-puke tiles, exposing himself. As the young assassin in training, I call for my mother and she appears in the doorway comically, like a sitcom character who does this all the time. And she does do this all the time. Armed with one of her worn-out pumps, she smashes the bastard—that’s what she calls him. The plump blackberry body splatters vertically up the wall. A severed leg twitches, the grand finale of the fireworks show. Die, bastard, die.
“You got him!” I cheer her on.
“Yay,” my mom sings, bouncing my baby sister on her hip, who claps for the word yay. Ya. Ya. I clap for the triumphant kill. My mother says you never use your good shoes to kill bugs. She keeps a full arsenal of old shoes in the closet. The black pumps from Payless are the Uzi, the striped flats are the Smith and Wesson.
After the bloodbath, we feed Freddy the Fish a pinch of his flakes. His plain bowl fills the empty space on the end table, on the side of the room that has been emptied of my father’s things. I watch the flakes flitter through the water and Freddy sops them up in his tiny mouth.
One night at The Apartments, while my mom is microwaving a frozen burrito, she looks out the window and sees a man with his dick in his hands.
She panics. My father left a year ago. We are asleep in our beds. Safe. She calls for the guy she’s started dating, John. The guy with his dick in his hands runs away. She phones the lady downstairs to talk. Her name is Miss Debby. She is fat and flat-faced, with a brown mullet that sits on her head like a frosted cake. She’s divorced too, dating a guy who wears a bandana and always brings over a case of cheap beer, carrying it gingerly as though it were a poodle in a handbag. He nods at us in the stairwells. His blue eyes are haunted by something. My mom is dating a guy who I will eventually call Dad, who will raise me and my sister.
I like John. He can roll his eyes to the back of his head, showing only the whites. He can blow perfect smoke ring Os with his mouth when he exhales his cigarette smoke. He can spell words out of the numbers on the calculator like BOOBS. 8008S. He has a mustache, which feels like a fun accessory a Ken doll might come with.
I just hope Santa comes through with the Teddy Ruxpin. I didn’t say shit to him while sitting on his knee at the mall. I just muted up and tried to ignore the wobbly knee under my ass. I thought Santa would smell like peppermint and cinnamon, but instead he smelled like chewing tobacco and coffee breath. My mother assured me it wasn’t the real Santa, only one of his helpers.
Later in my bedroom, I telepathically communicate my wish for a Teddy Ruxpin to the real Santa. I hope Santa listens in the same way God listens. I realize Santa has limited resources, a workshop of useless elves. I have other deities with higher powers, whether by magic, myth, or mendication. At the mall, I beg for pennies to throw in the mall fountain so I can wish for more wishes. At the playground lot of The Apartments, I grab up fistfuls of dandelions to blow on. The lot is overgrown with angry mobs of them. I blow on birthday candles. I summon The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. Buddha. Something, someone will come through.
We all have a space that must be filled. It is a space with its own gravitational pull. It is a starving space, feeding on our longing, dreams, fears, stress, depression. Adults mind the space by opening credit cards, cutting up credit cards, taking up smoking, quitting smoking, heating up cans of Dinty Moore, and hiding crying at the dinner table. Kids fill the space in with magic and wishes, whispering to six-foot-tall rabbits and talking bears. My mother says I should pray to God, so I do.
My mother peers into a compact lighted makeup mirror set up at the table. She bought it at the dollar store, and I got parachute man toy but its floss-thin strings are already broken. We also picked up another can of bathroom cleaner, a different brand to try. My mother is going to beat that mold.
I watch her apply the mascara with her mouth open. I watch Masters of the Universe, which I call He-Man. I watch my sister toddle around, scanning the room with her Terminator eye, identifying the weak targets of lampshades and picture frames to pull down. My anxiety peaks. I don’t want her to break anything. It upsets my mom, and makes her mascara mouth face frown. I rock in place and bite the inside of my cheek. The toy commercials come on, like benzos for my brain. My mouth hangs open. My eyes glaze over and stare into the void. My mother looks over and tells me to close my mouth.
“Hi, my name is Teddy Ruxpin,” the TV says. The commercial is placid, almost like it’s a commercial for a funeral home, with the memorial piano music playing. A child shows off his bear at show and tell. The children are skeptical, but then his switch is turned on and so is a generation of lonely children.
“Here it is! Here it is! The Teddy commercial!” I say. I point, I wave, I flag down aircraft. I jump, I scream, I speak in tongues. I want this I want this I need this. It talks. It sings. It’s a friend.
Friend dolls are popular in the 1980s. Parents getting divorced is as much a fad as shoulder pads and Pac-Man. There’s a collective guilt. So, our parents buy us friends. They’re hefty in size, weighing almost ten pounds and some of them reaching two feet in length. They read you stories, share your bike seat, and pat you on the back as you sob yourself to sleep. There’s Teddy Ruxpin, My Pet Monster, My Buddy, and Kid Sister. I want to give My Buddy rides on my back, wrestle with him, and tousle his synthetic hair. I want Kid Sister to process with because the kids at preschool rode on me again and pretended I was a horse. I want My Pet Monster because I desperately want those iconic orange handcuffs he comes with. MJ had the glove; My Pet Monster had the ‘cuffs.
Teddy Ruxpin sells over ninety million dollars’s worth of toys in 1985. Even though it’s basically a glorified cassette player wrapped in bear fur, to kids it’s Disneyland Jesus. By the end of its reign, the Teddy Ruxpin empire could have taken down the Ming Dynasty in a war. There were nearly forty cassette storybooks available, ten additional outfits you could change him into, a sidekick Grubby doll, a cartoon series with sixty-five episodes, the requisite 1980s bed sheet set, and even a shiny red plastic telephone you could call Teddy on.
My mother finishes with the mascara. Next she tops off her hair with a fresh layer of Aqua Net. The air tastes crispy and metallic. She looks at the commercial and suggests we turn on the Christmas lights for Santa. The lights are a single strand of fat incandescent bulbs hanging loosely around a window that looks out at the compound’s parking lot and shrubs. There are always teenagers gathering in the lot, with their gawky and angular limbs, looking like they’re too big to be stashed away in The Apartments.
It’s Divorce Dad Christmas. My father has a new girlfriend. I think we are visiting with him, but we are really visiting with her. They decorate the tree and flirt. They set out the butter cookies that come in the blue tin can, tasting like the very aura of the pharmacy store they came from. I trace the lines and ridges of the cookies with my finger and shred the roof of my mouth on their crystallized sugar. I wander the house. My sister stays behind, lulled by the puffy clamshell Disney VHS tape they popped in to go with the cookies. A cat lady, the girlfriend has throngs of cats, so many that each one has its own stupid step. They guard their respective stairs, each one its own little throne. They dagger me with their yellow and amber eyes.
I try to pet the gray cat with yellow eyes on the bottom step but it lashes at me like the raptors in Jurassic Park. Not that I will see that movie for another decade, but when I do, I already know exactly what it feels like to be clawed at and eaten alive. The cats each slink down the stairs to get their piece of me, a waterfall cascade of cats. I manage to fend them off and stagger back to where my father and the lady are decorating, before I collapse in a pool of my own blood. The argument is settled. Die Hard is a Christmas movie. I become a dog person that day. Dogs might shiv you prison-style over the last Pupperoni treat, but cats will shiv you for nothing at all.
My father gives me a Maglite for Christmas, a fifty-dollar, tactical flashlight for a four-year-old. It has cold metal grip, the four-hundred-meter beam, and the blinding lumens strong enough to burn through a cornea. Every other flashlight that I will ever handle in my life is a plastic Fisher Price toy.
“Everyone should own one. You’re not messing around with one of these,” he says.
Holding it in my hands, the Maglite transfers its inherent power to me. Maybe this is how people feel when they hold a gun. It’s the closest I will ever get to the Second Amendment. Drop resistant, doubling as a baton-style melee weapon, built for riots and apocalypses, with an anodized aluminum body housing six D batteries. Mine is the shade of pull-drunk-drivers-over and shine it in their faces Cop Blue. My baby sister gets one, too, in Cherry Bomb Red for punker street fights.
My father chuckles at his scrawny daughters wielding Maglites under the Christmas tree. He spurts up laughter, a soft chuckle that emits from him in little jet streams. It’s a sound I love to hear. He was proud. It was his contribution to the sucking space. Talking bears wouldn’t save us, but knowing how to fight would.
At home I show my mother, who looks over the Maglite for a moment, considering its skull-cracking weight, and finally laughs. A dry, almost choking sound that she wants to repress but can’t stop. She composes herself, rolls her eyes, sighs, and tells me, “That’s your father.”
A few weeks later I nearly disfigure my sister while playing with the flashlight, pretending it’s a stage show light and dropping it on her face. I blame my grandmother, who made us watch the stage production of Peter Pan she taped. It wasn’t optional. When grandmothers do something as serious and committal as taping a program off the television, it’s a mandate. The stagecraft got me hype. Mt. Saint Helens happens on my sister’s face.
The following year, I do get a My Pet Monster friend doll, with those glorious orange handcuffs. I get it for Easter, which I do not think of as a religious holiday, but instead as a consolation-prize Christmas with the giant rabbit. My grandmother calls the doll the ugliest thing she’s ever seen, with its blue fur and horns and a doofy grinning overbite. I sit on the floor handcuffing myself and breaking the plastic pull-apart chains over and over and over. I switch it up by handcuffing the dog, who looks at me, sighs in the way that old dogs do, and tries her best to fall back asleep.
I never do get the Teddy Ruxpin. It becomes something imprinted upon me, a scar. Except not the kind of scar where one was wounded and re-healed. It’s more like a battle scar, an earned scar, one you pull up your sleeve to show off.
Not getting a Teddy Ruxpin is how I identify my comrades. Other battle scars include the McDonald’s Drive-Thru Playset and a Powerwheels car. I meet people who did have those toys. When they reached the sucking space, they must have simply forded the river, like playing a game of Oregon Trail without losing a single ox or family member. I find I have little in common with them.
My sister would like to add that she never got the Barbie Dream House or the Barbie Corvette. She was forced to transport her Barbies around in our dad’s old Reeboks, pretending they were cars. In fact, the Barbies might as well have been forced to live in squalid pink tents on Barbie Skid Row. Barbie with her infested, nested, synthetic hair, unbrushable, pushing the accessorizing purple shopping cart, collecting cans and cats. It was exactly like that. Rescue Mission Skipper was sometimes helicoptered in to provide meals and free healthcare clinics.
Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.