The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 2

Forty Words

by Yannick Murphy

When I was a girl I had a doll that was my size. She had a wardrobe that matched my own. When I wore the rabbit–fur muff and the rabbit–fur hat and went ice–skating, she'd wear them, too, and she'd sit beside my limousine driver, watching me. Sometimes I'd tell Michel that my doll had to sit on his lap, and while I skated in circles I'd wave to her, and Michel, thinking I was waving to him, would wave back. When it grew dark, I wouldn't want to go home. I wouldn't want to go back to my apartment where the heat was always on high and coming out of the vent, continually making the drapes in my room shudder. Michel would appear at the railing holding my doll, and he'd call for me, telling me that it was time to leave, that Central Park was not a place for a ten–year–old girl at night.
     "Your NouNou is preparing your dinner," he'd say.
     "We want a pretzel," I'd say, and so he'd promise my doll and me a pretzel hot from the vendor if I'd just leave the ice.
     In the limousine I'd feed my doll some of the pretzel, forcing it into her slightly open mouth, the big grains of salt falling onto her muff, getting lost in all the whiteness, but she wouldn't mind. She'd keep smiling as we drove along the streets, the lights from the signs above the store windows and the lights from the traffic lights the only things making her change, making her face take on the yellows, greens, and reds of the lights. Sometimes I'd try to smile just like she did. I wanted to learn how to continue smiling even though someone might be forcing something into my mouth that I didn't like, or making me do something that I didn't want to do.
     My NouNou would come and try to tuck us in at night, but I didn't want her. I wanted Michel. I'd sit on my bed with my arms crossed, trying to put my doll's smile on my face, refusing to listen to NouNou tell me to lie back and get under the covers. My smile must have looked sad, though, because NouNou would say, "Don't do that. Don't cry. I'll go get him." Then NouNou would go down the hall, to Michel's quarters, and bring him to me. Michel would smell like Scotch then, and his eyes would be red. He wouldn't be wearing his black suit, but a flannel bathrobe over an undershirt, and his cheeks would be mottled and flushed, as if it were he who had been circling the ice out in the cold.
     "Mademoiselle Rebecca, do not let the bedbugs bite," he'd say to me, and then to my doll he'd say, "Mademoiselle Cinderella, sweet dreams."
     NouNou's job was easy because I did not let her care for me. It was Michel I made blow on my cuts and build towers with my blocks and play charades, taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his cuffs so that he could tap his fingers against his inner arm, one or two or three at a time on the smooth skin, so different from the hairy top, letting me know how many syllables spelled out the answer.
     I named her Cinderella because I liked the fairytale of how she changed from being poor to being rich. I liked believing that a person could become something else like that, so quickly. If I saw a homeless person on the street with a broken–down cardboard box for a bed, I would not let Michel walk by quickly, as he sometimes tried to do. Instead I'd dig my hand into his pockets, pulling out what I could. Sometimes it was just a half–eaten roll of Lifesavers, which he'd suck on after he'd had a drink at lunch, and I'd set the half roll on the uneven cardboard beside the homeless man. I liked to think that the next day if I walked by again the man would be gone, that like Cinderella I'd changed his fortune.
     I learned about submarines because of my parents. They were away making a film about them. My father directed films, and my mother wrote the scripts or sometimes she just doctored them. Before I knew what that meant I'd asked her why the scripts were sick, and she'd thrown back her head and laughed, and I saw how perfectly white and straight her teeth were, and how perfect the roof of her mouth also was, like the ribs of the great whale skeleton in the museum Michel would sometimes take me to. My mother and father were often away on location, and for the longest time I thought on location was the name of a place, a part of the world I hadn't seen yet, where all movies were made.

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