Late Summer 1976
Behind City Market.
Iron River, Michigan
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all,
or if he moves will he fall?
Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We’ll just pass him there
why should we even care?
from “Iron Man”
– Black Sabbath
At five years old it was hard to get me off the top of Barbie. When you’re the first boy born to a family of three aunts, a single mother, and a middle-aged grandmother on husband number four, you don’t have much say about what gets handed down, but you do have a say about use. Every afternoon I would take Barbie to my bedroom for her nap. I would undress her and place her plastic body softly on a pillow, take off my second-hand mismatched Garanimals, 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 girl each session to focus on. My favorite was Suzie Holub from the 1976 roster. Her hair was dark, and her smile even darker. In her brown eyes was a distance I wanted to travel, a distance that would fly me east over an ocean to a larger city on a larger river where Suzie would be at the bank, parting my hair and speaking the language of aliens. It was natural that her breasts were adorned with stars because she was of another universe. This supernova love was painful. My pee-pee was half the size of Barbie’s body so I just rested it there like a rocket on a launch pad until the boosters kicked in. And then I launched a thousand expeditions in minutes, and my rocket often got damaged in the atmosphere, but I figured if I did it long enough I would reach love.
It wasn’t supposed to be right for a little boy to play with Barbies, but it felt so . . . heavenly, in a Carl Sagan sort of way. 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 my tongue, a damp sock, and undiluted Mr. Clean. With baby oil libations, I squeezed her through the love-tunnel of my grasped hand. I carried her in my back pocket and untucked my shirt to hide her.
I treated her well, and everyone knew it and was getting a little worried.
Aunt Molly was the first one to walk in on us in my new bedroom in the alley house behind City Market. My Spider-Man underwear were at my knees, and my ass travelled to and fro in the dank air of dirty socks, broken Crayons, and asbestos. She was 15 then, seven years younger than Mother and ten years older than me: silk-black hair, gap-toothed, busty, tushy, and already letting boys mount her like I did Barbie. She never made eye contact and “really liked praying” is what Gramma would say sarcastically. Maybe she was always just looking for the Lord, and I didn’t know much about that either so to me, he was just something like a superhero—Spider-Man, the Green Lantern, or even Ragsy, the mutt across the street.
“Jesus Christ! What the hell are you doing?” she screamed after she entered my room without observing the “Chad’s Domain” sign. “Oh my fucking God!” she said drawing out the vowel in “God” in a sharp ascending pitch. I was bummed because I had to look away from Suzie and my rubbing rhythm was all off now. Molly started running in place as if she were trying to escape something she clearly could not. All I saw were her breasts shaking freely under her Warhol Rolling Stones tongue shirt. In a half laugh/half scream she called for Aunt Ally to come and look. Molly and Ally were always visiting Mother in her new house because they were free to smoke cigarettes and meet boys there. I really dug them most of the time because when they babysat me we’d go to Ben Franklin’s dime store and steal art supplies for them and action figures for me so I could have some toys for boys. But nothing beat a naked Barbie and her breasts cutting the waves of excited adolescent shrieks, and a poster full of flat bellies and blue stars.
I made eye contact with Suzie again and got my rhythm back.
“Chad’s fucking a Barbie, for Christ’s sake!” 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 that really counted.
I tore my eyes again from Suzie and looked back over my shoulder at Molly there with her hands on the doorway jambs. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t stop. I just kept pumping her and pumping her while Molly laughed and ran and ran without going anywhere, still yelling for Ally to come, “Oh Lord, Holy fuck! You gotta see this Al!” I looked Molly right in the eye and kept giving it to Barbie because I remembered that is what I saw Ragsy—my buddy 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 whining. I let out a scream when I saw Ragsy mounted on her rear-end. He just glanced 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 Molly stay, all exposed in the doorway like that? Maybe she could have hid in a closet and observed in order to learn something, but to just gawk on like that was really strange.
Then Ally finally responded, the only one in seven generations of family to be a member of what Gramma would call the Itty Bitty Titty Committee. At twelve, her body was nearly fully matured just like the other women in the family had been. Her bitty-titties had no hope of growth. Her hair was as long as Molly’s with no bangs, but lighter, reds and blondes like the color of a sunrise, which fit her well because most of the time her thoughts were in the sky. “Spacey” is what Mother said, and I thought that’s what I wanted to be; to me, “spacey” and “heavenly” were the same. She was the most petite in character and stature, but when she had her mind made up about something, she painted it with loud, dark language and a glare from her icy eyes.
“What? I’m painting clouds,” she said in her spacey-tone from somewhere in the distance. She was really eating her stash of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with Tang.
“Get your little tits in here and check this out!”
And so the loud painting came, “I said I am fucking painting clouds, slut-face! I’m coming now. Happy?” she said in a way that boomed from some deep, animal place. Seconds later the busty and the bitty were both there staring at me and laughing, like I was a scene in a cartoon that they had always wanted to see. “Wow,” is all Aunt Ally could say with her orange lips, and that could have meant she was really proud of me, or that I had disgusted her beyond words. It was always like that with her. So I just thought of Ragsy and kept going until I was so excited that I peed all over Barbie. That yellow was always my weakness, and I would manage to piss in every place I lay my head for ten years. A puddle formed on the pillow and overflowed to the linoleum floor and streamed toward Molly and Ally’s bare feet. They didn’t notice until the liquid heat touched their toes. They looked down, then at each other briefly, screeched “gross!” drawing out the vowel in “gross”—this time in a sharp descending pitch, spun around in opposite directions, accidentally knocked their foreheads together—and left me alone.
I had never given it to Barbie like that before and I’m not sure if she liked it. The only thing I got was a heart beating really fast and the shakes. If anything, I lost something, and that would have been my breath, I guess.
Nevertheless, 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:
“Dat Chad really knows how da give ‘er tarpaper,” Toivo Takala 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.
“Holy wah!” Vain might say, “What a character. Dat Chad is all right.” He was saying this from the arms of my Aunt Molly who he practiced with in the backseat of his car parked out at Cannon mine.
Barbie was my tool for practicing. I was just trying to figure things out, how a prairie dog knows his hole from all the others, what is flotsam and what is jetsam, am I a grown-up acting like a child, or a child playing “big.” People never stop trying to figure these things out. Mother was still working on figuring things out, and that’s why we had moved again.
* * *
Depending on the slant of the Earth’s axis and Mother’s inclination, we would roll up or down the hill that separated Iron River from Stambaugh in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—U.P. for short. Had it been 60 years earlier we would have been able to take a trolley with an interior decked out in Mahogany. And we would have seen miners, red with ore dust coming up right out of the Riverton, Beta, Caspian, Buck, Fogarty, Berkshire, Seldon, Paint River, Mastadon, Nanaimo, Isabella, Baltic, Homer, Crystal Falls, or Hemlock mines. There was just one mine of over a hundred still operating, but the open pits right in the center of every community were a constant reminder of a better time, even though the whole county was now a toxic waste site.
So, the emotional tilt of the axis rolled us down the hill again and we came to a halt behind City Market. City Market was still pure Main Street U.P. and had the soul of that better time. It was no bigger than a living room and had one of everything you ever needed stacked in a metrical pattern that composed a song of processed food, saggy asses, and large guts. 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 shaggy scabs. He smiled a lot and was considered quite handsome by the over-40 conservative helmet-hair housewives who had 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—liberal by nature, not by choice—and had an authentic ivory holder. Her preferred drink was a Bloody Mary and for a long time I believed that blood was the 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 the Butcher’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 up the expectations of women. Even after Eddy—Mother’s experimental half-a-year husband that divorced her and the entire U.P. for a life below the bridge back in Battle Creek—she wanted someone to expect something from her, still. 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 with nothing more than a spent roach and a pocket full of blank applications. Get a real job and buy a proper 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.