“Donnie doesn’t deserve Deborah’s doll collection. I mean, look at the oaf. His hands are like a pair of uncooked ham hocks, slopping about.”
“Oh please, Sarabeth, y’all need to just split them or something. Deborah wasn’t just your Grandmama.”
“That’s not the point Crystal. You think if Papa George had some famed football card collection or somethin’, Donnie would be fine to split ’em? It’s not right.”
“And if you sell ’em? How right is that?”
The two women, clad in pastel debutante dresses bobbed in and out of the shade but even that couldn’t put a stop to the mixed stench of fresh-cut grass and B.O. that fermented across the estate lawn. The funeral procession was barely recognizable now, and to any outside onlooker, it could have been Derby Day. Not a drop of black was in sight and mint juleps sweated in every hand as laughter chased away the tears that had dripped down rosy cheeks a few hours prior.
“That’s not the damn point, Crystal.”
“Goodness, Sarabeth, it’s hardly noon.”
“Cut it, Crystal, you miss a putt and Satan himself jumps in your mouth.”
Crystal huffed and excused herself to the “little ladies’ room.” Sarabeth slurped at the mint dregs before some cousin from some other cousin came up to extend condolences.
“Auntie Deborah sure will be missed, Sarabeth. I’m so sorry fer yer loss.”
“Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for commin’, Jeffery.”
“You gonna sell those dolls? Donnie told me they’re famous or somethin’. Double their weight in gold he said, he did.”
“Well now, it’s a bit early for those kinda thoughts. And if I may say, a touch disrespectful to Grandmama Deborah, right Jeffrey?”
“Oh. Yes. Sorry, Sarabeth, I meant no disrespect.”
Sarabeth waved him off and took her leave, weaving in and out of the guests like a rattlesnake, nodding to the heads of hands that grazed her shoulder as she went.
The bar, her destination, and for that matter, the sun, were suddenly blocked by a wall named Donnie.
“You been avoiding me, Sis?”
“We all need our space to grieve, Donnie, and speaking of which, you’re in mine.”
Donnie took a step closer. Aftershave and sweat barreled down from his bald head to assault her nostrils. Like a simulated dance, Sarabeth took one step back.
“I’ve got no interest in the house, Sara — I just want the dolls. So be a doll and take whatcha yer given.”
“Awfully suspicious those dolls got your attention. I cannot seem to recall this same fascination back when we was kids.”
“And what … you share Grammie’s obsession? You just want them dolls to play and photograph?”
Crystal appeared and grabbed Sarabeth’s arm.
“The pastor needs to see you, honey, has some papers for you to sign.”
“I’ll come too.”
“Entertain the guests Donnie — flash that big toothless grin of yours. It’s just payments. And change that shirt — looks like some cloud passed by and pissed on yah”
Sarabeth turned on her heels, the grass twisted beneath, groaning in protest. She followed Crystal up the patio and into the house where the Pastor had been communing with Christ and the bottle. She snatched the papers out of his tee-tottering hand and signed away the fees in a flourish.
“Thank you, Pastor Jonathan. I just know that our Deborah was lookin’ down on that service as an angel with her hands on her big heart. It was wonderful. Our family cannot thank you enough.”
“It wass my pleasure. The parish will miss Deborah’s generous —”
“Excuse me, Pastor, but I must get back to the party. Funerals allow no rest to the livin’. Please, let Crystal know if you need anything else.”
Sarabeth left the pastor to finish his favorite pastime. She took a turn away from the voices outside and scrambled up the over-varnished stairway, her heels click-clacking against the chipped cherrywood. She passed the first room, a veritable ghost town of old furniture, each piece covered by a white, now yellowed sheet. A loud creak announced her presence to the collection, but not one head turned to acknowledge her entrance.
Sarabeth let out a long sigh and shut the door behind her. It was like being at another party, but where no one noticed you were there. The dolls were arrayed like a battalion, waiting for orders. While most took up floor space, the far-end wall acted as a doll pedestal with several of the 17-inch mannequins encased in glass prisons.
Sarabeth walked to the pedestal and took out her sage-green handkerchief to wipe the dust. Unlike many strewn along the wall, that carried warm memories of imagining far-off worlds that now seemed even farther away, the doll Sarabeth stared down held only reminders of reprimands and black bruises. The lifelike doll was a girl with plaited auburn hair and blue-gray eyes that matched the sash and accents on her lace-sleeved white dress. It wore a plain straw hat and a set of white shoes and stockings. Her face was set in an unusually mature expression and her ears, Sarabeth’s favorite part, were pierced. It was thought to have come from an experimental mold made by German toymaker Lewin Kersting in the late 1880s. Being a mold, there were no other known examples, making it one of the rarest, most valuable dolls in the country.
“Grammie is barely cold and already you got her rollin’ in her grave.”
“The guests boo you off the lawn, Donnie?”
“I’m just checking up on my collection.”
“The last time you checked out the collection you were lookin’ up skirts.”
“Your smart mouth isn’t gonna get you out of this one, Sis. Hell, you thought it was gonna get you out of this town but look atcha, still here, still stuck with all us southern trash yous always been so sick of.”
“Then why don’t yah just give me the damn dolls and let me leave, Donnie? You sure as hell won’t miss me.”
“The will what?”
“Don’t yah find it a wee bit odd that every little thing Grammie owned was spit and spotted minus dem dolls? And the whole lot of us family knows them dolls were her pride and joy.”
“Use your brain, Donnie. Time ran out on her to make the decision. Easy as that.”
“Mighty convenient. Pride and joy as they were, Grammie knew their worth. Bigger than this estate.”
“This estate is hardly worth a pence or two,” Sarabeth said, setting the Kersting doll down on the sunken floorboards with the rest. “Look around, it’s deader than our Grammie. As much as I’d like to explain what math is, I don’t think there’s enough time on this God green Earth. Now let’s go, we must tend to the troop.”
She smoothed the doll’s dress with one, two motions of her hands and tucked its hair behind its ears before turning to glare at him. Then she shot out the door like a Confederate cannon.
Donnie listened for her heels on the steps before backing up and giving the doll nearest him the hardest kick he could. The doll smashed into the opposite wall, a literal rag doll. Its golden wig, ripped off from the force, lie at his feet. He made a point to stomp on it as he left.
Sarabeth waved off the bartender’s deft attempt to put mint in her glass. She took the julep and downed it before it had a chance to sweat.
“Ma’am, if I may …”
“You may not. And make it like you would were I a man.”
“There you are — should have known you was gonna be by the bar, hiding away from family.”
Sarabeth turned and grimaced. “Speaking of, I didn’t see you at the funeral, Uncle Reed.”
“I overslept and by the time I had breakfast — ta-da — it was time to celebrate her life instead of mourn it.”
“You always had a nose for the party.”
“You got that right, baby. You always loooved my parties if I do so recall.”
“Hmmm. Are these your condolences? If not, I can accept them as such, and you can go hit on one of our more distant cousins.”
“Take one trip up north to that city and yah come back a bitch, spoutin’ the same shit stereotypes.”
“The difference — we both know you.”
Uncle Reed smirked and pushed back his sweat-streaked, thinning hair.
“You know that brother of yours is in some trouble?”
“That brother of mine’s been 6’6, 24 stone since he was 16. Combine with a brain the size of a bran flake, he’s the recipe for trouble.”
Uncle Reed picked up a bottle at the bar, giving Sarabeth a wink. He turned to go.
“This trouble is a little bit bigger than Donnie. You should ask him about it.”
“Your drink, ma’am.”
Sarabeth took the julep, no mint, and headed toward the lakefront. It was a beautiful property, worth a little more than a pence or two. But after nearly two centuries, the buildings that called the land home had nearly given in to the nature it had once colonized. Sarabeth kicked pebbles into the light lake wake. Across it were houses just like her Grammie’s. Some older, some newer, but from here, they were all the same. Tiny boxes enclosing fears, joys, and mysteries.
“Hey gurl! Now what in the good lord’s name are you doing down here all by yerself?”
“The noise gets to you on a day like today, Crystal.”
“You poor thing — I know you and Deborah were close.”
“That’s a liberal use of close, Crystal, and we are a very, very conservative family.”
“I just meant …”
“I know what yah meant, Crystal, and I know yah meant well. Here in the south it’s just family, family, family. But what if
your family is no good? What then?”
“Sarabeth … I don’t think —”
“I know what the good lord says. But he’s pretty lax on the details, is he not?”
“Crystal, you know my family from afar. You see us from a pretty little window atop a pretty little house. But we ain’t that — Do you know Donnie’s in trouble?”
“For god’s sake Crystal, tell me. The dolt’s still family, brainless or not.”
“They says he’s gotten himself in a bit of drugs?”
Crystal stared at her shoes like they were a pair of hypnotic yo-yos.
“Crystal. What do you mean — he doin’ or sellin’?”
“Sellin’, but from what I hear, he’s mostly owin’.”
“Mother of pearl. How did this happen? And please, do spit it out this time.”
“Look hun, there ain’t much to do in this town. You can only fish, hunt, and screw for so long before your heart goes searchin’ for something else.”
“I don’t think the heart goes searchin’ for drugs, Crystal. This damn town is nothing but a burden on all who walk its streets.”
“Beth, the heart needs fillin’, it doesn’t discriminate with what. More importantly, this new fentanyl isn’t like heroin or cocaine from our day. It’s no burden, it’s a death sentence.”
“Yeah, it’s one of those super-powered opiates, pills. It’s what makes it so damn easy. Just last week, Bobby, you remember him right — yeah, just last week he overdosed. It was his first time.”
“Crystal, is Donnie getting people killed?”
“He ain’t no murderer if that’s what you mean, but, he ain’t no nun neither.”
“Where you going?”
“Where you think?”
Sarabeth marched back toward the increasingly raucous party. A band had materialized and begun to play at the top of the patio, gathering a hoard of guests now stomping along. She padded on past and into the house where she found Donnie nursing a bottle of whisky in the kitchen all to himself.
“You got some splainin’ to do.”
“I’m up and sick of talking dolls — them lawyers can decide.”
“You got no business deciding what’s right or not. And I ain’t talking about the dolls. I’m talking ’bout this side business of yours that’s getting people killed — and from the sounds of it, you could be next.”
“I ain’t doin’ those drugs.”
“You ain’t payin’ ’em off, neither. How could you be so stupid? — Don’t answer that.”
Sarabeth took the bottle out of his hand and poured herself a shot, shooting it back.
“How much do you owe?”
“Couple hundred grand or so.”
“Jesus criminy, Donnie. Why, tell me why?”
“It seemed easy — put money in, get double the money back.”
“Yes, a brilliant business acumen you got there.”
“I am sick and tired of you calling me stupid, Sis.”
“Well stop acting stupid then. You are how yah act.”
“Uncle Reed said it was sound.”
“I knew there was someone worse behind this.”
“At least he’s around.”
“Are you listening to yourself? I don’t shoot myself in the head just ’cause guns are around. Uncle Reed thinks for himself not for the family.”
“Then you and him share something after all.”
“We share many things, but that is not one of them. I left because had I not, you would have ended up selling me an overdose just like Bobby.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to. I had my reasons.”
“Had your reasons for what?”
Uncle Reed sauntered into the room, his thumbs hooked on the inside of his faded Levi belt loops.
“We were just talking about you, Uncle Reed. About how you been corruptin’ Donnie here for your own gain.”
“I didn’t gain a thing — I made proper introductions was all.”
“You are the worst thing that’s ever happened to this family and an absolute disgrace to the human race.”
Uncle Reed smirked and walked right up to Sarabeth so she could smell the stale whisky from his breath and mustache.
“Why am I the worst? Hmm? You gonna tell everybody?”
“Tell everybody what?”
“Nothin’, Donnie. If it ain’t clear by now, it don’t matter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It ain’t like that’s an unfamiliar feeling.”
“Shut your mouth, Uncle Reed. I’m the only one who gets to speak to Donnie that way.”
“Everyone thinks it so — what’s the difference? Now, Donnie, I came here to find you, because I’ve got a mighty fine plan that will scrub your debts as clean as a fresh spittoon.”
“Don’t listen to him, Donnie.”
“Please Sarabeth, go play bridge or somethin’ and let the men speak. We can talk later if you want.” Uncle Reed winked.
“I’d leave you to it if I wanted you both dead but that’s only half the truth.”
“Leave us, Sara. I got myself into this, I gotta get myself out.”
Sarabeth stopped herself, leaving the two men huddled over the kitchen island, whispering between a bottle. She wrapped right around to the servant’s kitchen and placed her ear to the door and listened as Uncle Reed divulged his plan.
“… we use the dolls to smuggle the latest shipment up to Birmingham. The demand up there is huge, I’m telling yah! Way bigger than the crawfish down here. And hey, those dolls are worth some cash, right? So we can just sell …”
Sarabeth removed her ear from the door and headed upstairs.
“You leavin’ already?”
“It’s been a long day, Crystal. I’m gonna grab a nap back at the hotel — I’ll see you later.”
“You better. A bunch of us are headed down to Brother Frankie’s to continue the festivities.”
“Brother Frankie’s — got it. It was good to see you.”
“Always good to see you, Sarabeth.”
“Glad someone thinks so.”
“Oh, Sarabeth. The only one who made you an outcast in this town was you. Everyday I’d see your Grammie and she’d ask if I’d spoken to you.”
“No, Sarabeth, you need to hear this. I mean look around. Back when we was kids, this place shined, and today, that shine was back. You could feel it, yah know? Grammie’s dying wish was to bring you back to this town, your family back together, and it took her dying to make it happen. Stay awhile, you may remember a few things you liked.”
“Crystal — I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I’ll see you at Frankie’s.”
“I sure hope that’s true.”
The big band had been replaced by an old radio, the party long since danced down to Frankie’s. Donnie and Uncle Reed sat on the wood panels, placing dolls in boxes.
“Where’s that famous one your Grammie always fawned over?”
“Oh, come on, you know the one, the rare one.”
Chicago, 399 miles. Behind the wheel of her rented Chevy pickup, Sarabeth turned down the radio as Billy Ray Cyrus accosted the sound waves. Country wouldn’t be heard as much where she was going, and that wasn’t a bad thing. On the next seat over, the Kersting doll sat, buckled up with the same expression she’d had for a good century or so.
“He won’t get to you, too.