Location: San José
The house is low slung and shaded by trees. A couple of rickety chairs sit on the porch and a cat gazes at us with lazy eyes from the shallow roof, as we walk up to the front door. I have been told a few things about Annie’s mother. I know, for instance, that she works nights at the hospital. I know that she has remarried and that Annie’s stepfather is retired and around the house a lot. I also learn that Annie is living in a trailer in the garden at the moment being ‘between homes’.
I am however, totally unprepared for what meets me as my new friend takes me proudly into her mother’s house. For one thing it is dark. The blinds are down, the curtains are pulled and as we enter the hallway it takes a moment to refocus in the shadows.
“It gets too hot with the blinds up and my mom likes to nap during the day so we keep it like this most of the time,” Annie explains.
I nod and smile. I do this a lot during my stay.
We have a coffee and sit at the kitchen table where a shaft of sunlight dares to invade and light up the room a little. Annie introduces me to her mom who is indeed a lovely lady. This lovely lady tells me I should stay with them, not spend money on motel rooms. I consider the idea but really, I prefer to be independent.
“Let’s go into the living room,” my friend suggests and with her little dog following, we head to the inner sanctum of the house. This is when reality leaves the building.
I appear to have entered a twilight world. The room is swathed in semi-darkness. Slivers of sunlight attempt to penetrate gaps in the blinds and as I blink, adjusting to the gloom, I am startled by rows of glass eyes staring back at me.
“Oh, meet my mom’s dolls!” drawls Annie with a grin.
These are not just any dolls. These are dolls that have never been played with, entombed in cellophane boxes and standing shoulder to shoulder on shelves ten deep, lining the four walls. The dolls come in all shapes and sizes. There are baby dolls, teenage dolls, costume dolls, cute little girl and boy dolls, china dolls, rag dolls, black dolls, white dolls, pretty dolls, extremely ugly dolls…all standing to attention in spooky silence.
It is evident that when wall space ran out, Annie’s mother was forced to take drastic action because the middle of the room is divided by a shelving unit and this too houses row upon row of staring eyes belonging to a veritable army of dolls of all shapes and sizes.
The top most shelves are occupied by teeny weenie dolls and little ornaments.
“Have a seat,” Annie has already flung herself on a couch having first removed a pile of boxed dolls that have yet to make it to a shelf of their own.
I close my mouth, aware that to stare so blatantly is rather rude. Instead, I walk around the display and pretend an interest. Actually, that is a bit unfair. I am interested but possibly not in quite the way that I should be. I am interested to know why there is such an extensive collection of dolls in this twilight home where light seems to be so limited. Is there a connection there? Are the dolls entombed in the gloom to preserve their delicate garments and protect the colours from fading?
I have walked half way round the room when Annie’s mother appears in her dressing gown having showered and readied herself for the evening shift.
“Do you like my dolls?” she drawls. I have to smile and say that they are certainly lovely and where on earth have they all come from? She shrugs and casually picks up a long stick with which she proceeds to go around the top most shelves and push the little ornaments back an inch or two. As she does so, she explains how she happened to be given a doll once and before she knew it, her friends and relations thought she collected them and now she has more than a thousand.
I am amazed.
“They tend to collect the dust though,” she says, putting the stick down and flicking dust from the nearest doll case.
I bet they do.
“Where will you put those?” I ask, indicating the pile of boxed dolls that are now lying forlornly in the corner of the room.
“Oh, well, as you see we had to make room for these in the middle so I expect we’ll work something out…”
I nod. I expect they will.
With my first introduction to the tomb of dolls over, we head back to the motel where I have booked in. My friend has booked in too – at my expense naturally.
“My Mom would love to have you stay over, think you could maybe do that tomorrow night? We could spend the night there and then head out to meet my grandma next day.”
The suggestion is put so pleadingly that I cannot refuse.
Hence, the following night I find myself back in the tomb of dolls, watching Annie’s mom and step-dad’s holiday video of their trip to Las Vegas. The dolls, those that are facing the right way, watch too.
As with most videos, it is of greatest interest to those who either shot it or are in it. My friend thinks I will enjoy it though. True, we wont have the chance to go to Vegas ourselves so, it seems a reasonable idea. It appears that Annie’s mother has shot most of the footage from the window of the car which her husband is driving, hence, we never see her face but we hear her voice.
“Frank, will you look at that – now that’s so pretty!” she sighs and the camera sweeps shakily across the road trying desperately to capture whatever it is she has just noticed . Comments like that abound as we watch their progress along the Boulevard and truly feel as though we are in the car too.
This feeling of ‘being there’ is re-enforced when the camera is inadvertently left running and placed on the floor. We are treated to a view of Mom’s feet, swollen and minus their shoes, as she continues to extol the virtues of Las Vegas. Unaware that their conversation is being recorded for posterity, or at least for my entertainment, the pair continue to talk until an argument ensues. It is one of those petty arguments that any married couple might have whilst travelling in a hire car through Las Vegas, with all the distractions that go with it.
“The light’s red honey,”
“ I see it, I see it…”
“Well it didn’t look like you saw it.”
“You did? Bull-shit!”
“Will you shut up woman, for God’s Sake!”
“Who you yelling at feller? I’m not the one missed the red light!”
“Put your shoes on and read the map. I’ll worry about the lights.”
“I can’t put my damn shoes on. I told you my feet hurt.”
“Red light, red light – think I’m blind? I saw it.”
“Well, sure you saw that light – that’s why you almost had us killed…”
It is a pretty normal conversation really, peppered with a healthy dollop of expletives. After several minutes of bickering, Annie’s mom realises the camera is still recording and switches it off. I was just getting interested too!
It’s time for bed. I am not quite sure where I am meant to be sleeping but it appears that the settee in the living room extends to a bed. Ah, I will be sleeping in the tomb of dolls. My friend heads off to her trailer. Her mother issues me with blankets and tells me not to worry if the ornaments fall off the top shelf in the night because they tend to move with the tremors.
I begin to undress.
“Gee, I’m sorry honey,”
‘Step-dad’ apologises profusely for barging in on me. He has ‘forgotten’ his glasses. Maybe I should be glad he’s forgotten them as I am not exactly decent. I don’t think the garment I am holding up in front of me leaves much to the imagination.
He leaves. Hmmm.
As I climb beneath the sheets, I am not so worried about the ornaments, it’s the dolls that disturb me. I swear they have each twisted on their stands the better to see me.
I switch off the light. Ironically, the room does not swim into total darkness. The glow of a street light filters through the blinds and a neon sign causes an eerie green ‘on/off’ light to fall on the faces of those dolls nearest to me.
Sleep does not come easily.
At long last I sink into a light slumber. My dreams are peppered with visions of ‘step-dad’ placing hidden cameras in the dolls’ heads so that their eyes swivel and follow me about the room.
I wake early.
‘Mom’ has come home from her night shift and is having ‘supper’ in the kitchen. Her husband has joined her. I feel slightly awkward lying here with so much activity going on in the next room. Is it light outside? Hard to tell but I think I can see a chink of daylight peeping through the blind. The neon sign no longer flashes.
I turn over and come face to face with the devil doll –well, he looks devilish but was he really there last night? I shiver as my imagination runs riot. Finding my wristwatch I see that it is 6.15am. Well, time to get up I suppose though I know my friend rarely rises before 11am.
I make sure I am well covered before I cross the hallway to the bathroom and I am fully dressed by the time ‘step-dad’ brings in a cup of coffee for me. Just as well, because he doesn’t knock.
‘Mom’ goes to bed and ‘step-dad’ who apparently stays up all night too (not sure where he spent those hours since I was occupying the living room) joins her.
I am alone.
The thing is – I am not alone. I sit on the sofa for five minutes and thirty seconds before the intimidation of a thousand pairs of eyes staring at me becomes too much. I grab a book and head off to the garden where I spend three hours and forty-five minutes reading until my friend comes to join me.
Now to meet Grandma!