"Handcrafted Dolls" by Dale Herd, recommended by Coffee House Press
INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL WOLFE
While you’re reading “Handcrafted Dolls,” you’ll probably think it’s the best short story in Dale Herd’s Empty Pockets, from Coffee House Press.
This story has it all: A voice you sense right away is going to say things of real interest; long paragraphs of discrete sentences giving equal weight to every action — and yet you always know what’s important: Shane’s attraction to Paula, a woman he respects from the minute he sees her; settings that frame the tale but never overwhelm it; and two people who explore their passion in ways you can’t doubt.
This is a tale of love derailed by knowledge, told in close third-person, about a man who feels sure he’s met the woman of his life. The force that drives him forward is precise and quiet, like the little wheels inside a good Swiss watch. You are drawn along by the naturalness of it all and then shocked and shocked again as reality has its way with a person’s heart.
The seemingly simple beauty of the language sets “Handcrafted Dolls” apart. There is no flash here, just verbal magic of a special type. If you love to read, you’ll be thinking, This is what words in a story ought to do.
Empty Pockets contains a generous selection from three earlier books by Dale Herd and finishes with a cascade of nineteen new stories that are stunning departures. “Handcrafted Dolls” is one of them. Like I said, as you read it you’ll think this must be the best story in the whole collection. Get the book, and then decide.
Michael Wolfe for Coffee House Press
They met in Rose Garden Park. She arrived late. Shane watched her set up her stand, a card table, a white tablecloth, and handcrafted baby dolls lifted from a cardboard box. She placed the dolls on the table and stood by them. She was a small blonde. His mother was a small blonde. She was prettier than his mother. He was selling glass-covered prints of bunnies and pandas with tiny red hearts painted on their chests. She thought they were awful. He agreed. They sold to single women. He sold lots of them. She sold nothing. As the day ended she sold her first doll for one hundred dollars. She was excited. He asked her to dinner. She suggested a Japanese restaurant. She selected what they ate. At fifteen she had joined the Venceremos Brigade, went to Cuba, and cut cane. She’d worked as a linesman for PG & E. She’d gone to UC Berkeley. She’d been a radical. She was still a radical. She was twenty-four, separated from her husband who was thirty. They’d been separated a short time. The next day she sold two dolls, then a third. She thought it was unbelievable. He asked her to dinner again. They went to the same restaurant. He left his wallet on the counter and had to go back in to get it. The little waitress said, “She’s got you flipping out, doesn’t she?” They made out in the parking lot. She had an unfurnished apartment on the ground floor of an old building. There was only a mattress and a blanket on the living room floor, a table with a single chair in the kitchen, a set of Calphalon pots and pans, and a phone in the empty bedroom. They made love. They did this repeatedly. She said, “I don’t want to go too fast, emotionally.” She made a picnic high in the Berkeley Hills. They could see all of Berkeley, Albany, and then Oakland to the south, and across the bay San Francisco with fog over Russian Hill. They spent every day of the next two weeks together. They drove to Point Arena, then back. She’d had an abortion. Her husband had not wanted a baby. Shane watched her work on her dolls. He loved her face, the slant of her cheekbones. In Oakland a trio of black guys walking by his van saw her on the front seat circling him with furious kisses and began singing a capella: “…I’m hers, she’s mine, wedding bells are gonna chime; singing do wah diddy, diddy dum, diddy do…” in do-wop harmonics, grinning and waving at them when they looked out. Her face was flushed. So was his. It was wonderful, their energy spinning out across the sidewalks. He needed more prints. She went to L.A. with him to get them. They made love in the Half Moon Motel on Sepulveda. Back in Berkeley he cut out all of his other girls. He called each one and told them. She heard him do it. That night she went out to the market. Someone came to her door. Shane got up and opened it. A light-skinned Cholo with a buzz cut and a flattened nose looked at him and said, “Who the fuck are you?” Shane said, “Yeah, so who the fuck are you?” The guy turned around and walked away. He was a solidly built guy, with a diamond stud in his left ear. Shane closed the door. She’d asked him not to answer the phone, but hadn’t said anything about answering the door. When she came back she cooked dinner. He told her about the guy. She said that was my husband; just don’t answer the door. She was a wonderful cook. The cardboard box of dolls sat on the floor next to them as they ate. He stayed a week longer than he was supposed to. He had never been happier. She was a runner. He wasn’t. Every morning she ran a circuit around Lake Merritt in Oakland. He ran with her and got stronger. He had to go back to the north shore of Lake Tahoe. It was July now, and the lake would be bumper-to-bumper with tourists. He would sell a lot of prints. She could sell her dolls. He had to work there through August. They could run early in the mornings on the high mountain golf courses cut between the pines before anyone else was up. They would see deer, and the air was so pure it was unbelievable. Every day you would wake up and feel it was the most wonderful day of your life. She would love it. The sky would be as blue as the lake. The lake would be shockingly cold to swim in. There was a club there you could sauna in after you swam. He had to leave early in the morning. She said she would meet him there. She would finish the wash the next day and bring him up the rest of his clean clothes when she came.
That night when he started in again she put her hand on herself and said, “No, it wants to be quiet for a while.” They lay there for a moment, and then she said, “No, it doesn’t want to be quiet anymore.” A week later her car loaded with all her belongings showed up at Tahoe. It parked on the lakeside of the highway with the sparkling blue of the lake behind it. He watched her get out and walk onto the dusty lot, coming along all the other arts and crafts stands, and knew she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. There were a number of women at his stand and she brought him his folded jeans and clean T-shirts, then told him she was leaving, that she didn’t know where she was going. He said, “What are you saying?” She said, “I don’t mean to shock you, but I have to go.” He was shocked, saying, “I don’t understand this. Why do you have to go?” She said, “I wanted to tell you face to face.” “Well, you have,” he said, “but why?” “It’s not you,” she said. He tried to argue. Nothing worked. The women were looking at them. “Could you walk me to the car?” She put the clothes down on the stand. Crossing the road she was careless about the traffic. A car came too close and he pulled her back, keeping her from getting hit. “At least spend the night and get a fresh start in the morning.” “I can’t,” she said. “If I don’t go now, I’ll end up staying the rest of my life.” “Jesus Christ,” he said, “what’s wrong with that?” “No,” was the answer, “I can’t.” She kissed him and got in the car. Under all her clothing in back he saw the box of baby dolls, the box of pots and pans. It had been a good, deep kiss. He watched her drive away, going east toward Reno, her hand out the window, fluttering goodbye. Coming back across the lot, he heard McMaster, the painter of the very large, very bad paintings, say, “What was that?” Shane said, “You tell me.”
One month later, the summer over, he began looking for her. He looked for her in other cars. He looked for her in the street. He went to the lake in Oakland and watched the runners. He went to the Japanese restaurant. No one had seen her. He drove to her empty apartment in Berkeley and looked up her landlord and asked for her forwarding address. There wasn’t one. He called the phone company and got new listings in every major city in the country. He made countless calls, dialing everyone with her last name at least once. He called the gas company saying he was her husband, saying there was a mix-up and had she given them their correct forwarding address? They gave him one. It was somewhere in the mountains in back of Santa Cruz down on the coast. He drove there and found the house in the redwoods. No one was inside. The doors were locked. He went around the back and opened a window and went in. It was her sister’s house. He found a letter to the sister with a return address in Portland, Oregon.
A week later he spent all of his money to fly to Portland.
He checked into a nice downtown hotel. It had begun to rain. She might be living with someone. It was dark out when he found her address. Her car was parked on the street. It was her car. There was nothing inside it. The building was a three-story building in a block of apartments. The outside locking panel had only a numbered security pad. The famous Portland rain was now coming down hard. Upstairs on the third floor a lit-up window was partially open. He shouted her name. He shouted it again. He saw her looking out the window, staring down at him for a moment before she recognized him. She came downstairs and opened the door and brought him upstairs. She asked how he found her. Inside the door he kissed her. She stepped aside and let him in. The apartment was just like the one in Berkeley, completely empty save for the mattress with quilt and pillow on the floor, and a book lying facedown next to the mattress. A small lamp next to the book was the only light in the room. The book was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. He told her about finding the letter. “You’re soaked,” she said. “Let me dry your hair.” Taking his coat she walked off in the dark and came back with a towel and began drying his hair. “I’m impressed,” she said, “with how you found me.” He wanted to turn and kiss her again, this time really kiss her. Something made him hesitate. He didn’t know what it was. She went in the kitchen and turned on the lights and made some tea. There were two chairs at the table. He took one and sat down. Her pots and pans were hanging on hooks above the stove. She was running a restaurant in downtown Portland. He didn’t see the cardboard box of dolls. She had walked in, looked at the menu, told them how she could improve their business, and just like that they hired her. “Why Portland?” Shane said. “It’s where I ran out of money,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could survive in a place where I didn’t know anyone. It’s something I always wanted to do.” “That’s amazing,” he said. The restaurant was really doing well. They really liked her. “Is there anyone else?” No, she wasn’t seeing any anyone. She hated to say this, but she really needed to get to sleep. She had to be up early to open the restaurant. “It takes up all my time.” He saw her studying him. “I’ve got a hotel room,” he said. “You’re welcome to sleep here,” she said. He stood and put his coat back on. “No,” he said, “I’ll let you get to sleep, but I’ll get up really early and meet you for breakfast.” She agreed, asking what hotel and he told her. They set the time. She again said he could stay. “No,” he said, “not tonight.” Did he want a taxi? No, he wanted to walk; he liked the rain. She walked him to the door, her side lightly pressed into his, and they kissed again, a better kiss this time, and he left, happy with himself, knowing if it were to happen it would happen now in the right way, on equal terms, with her coming back to him, believing now that it was going to happen.
Looking up in the rain he saw her light go out.
Walking back downtown in the dark he didn’t mind getting soaked.
Early in the morning she came to his hotel and up to his room. When she came in he thought it would happen now, but there wasn’t time, she was pressed for time, and they went downstairs and ate in the dining room. She told him to go back to L.A. and write her. He said, “No, I want you to come with me.” “Listen,” she said, “you’re an exceptional person in many ways. You’re good-looking and smart and have a basic sweetness — ”
“Whoa — ” Shane said.
“No,” she said, “I want to talk about this.”
“So where’s the ‘but’?”
“It’s how you go about things.”
“How I go about things has put me right here with you, at this table.”
“Yes, it has, but that’s because I’m weak — ”
“You’re not weak.”
“No, I am, more than you know. I want you to go back to L.A. and write me, okay? Could you do that?”
“Jesus Christ, there really is someone else, isn’t there?” Shane said.
“We’ve already gone over this; there isn’t, okay?”
Shane stared at her.
“Now you’re angry, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes,” she said, “you are, so I really shouldn’t say anything.”
“About us, about me. Because I’m good-looking, and you’re good-looking, you think my being with you makes you even more good-looking. It’s all so vain — ”
“Are you nuts?” Shane said. “That’s how to stand something on its head. You really don’t like me, do you?”
“I do like you. I just don’t think you understand — ”
Shane grabbed her wrist.
“Okay,” he said, “can we stop this?”
“Yes,” she said, “let’s stop it.”
“Okay,” Shane said, letting go of her wrist.
She pulled her hand back.
“Thank you,” she said. She stood up, lifting her coat off the chair.
“What are you doing?”
“I have to go.”
“Because you are mad, and I’ve got to get to work.”
“I don’t get it. Last night you asked me to stay. Why are you putting all this on me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t explain myself.”
Shane took the check and walked over to the waitress and gave it to her, waiting as she rang up the charges. He paid and went outside. Paula was waiting at the bottom of the steps. The rain had stopped, and he walked her out to her car and they didn’t kiss and she left for work and he went back into the hotel and packed and checked out and flew back to L.A.
Nine months later he saw her again.
He was working in Rose Garden Park. She wasn’t. She was looking. She came by his stand. Standing behind her, a few feet back, was the same Cholo guy who had knocked on the door. He had the same haircut, and a mustache now. He stood tall and straight, and didn’t look at Shane. Paula was in a dress. Shane had never seen her in a dress.
She was very beautiful, and very pregnant.
She stepped farther away from the guy and came close to Shane. Her face was fuller than he remembered. “I really would like to talk to you, but I can’t right now.”
“I see that,” Shane said.
“Maybe I can come by later.”
“Sure,” Shane said.
She looked away and turned back around.
For the rest of the fair he kept looking for her. She never came by. When the fair was over and he packed up his van and drove off from the empty park he was the last vendor to leave.
Looking back all he saw was the long sweep of lawn, the packed dirt path across it, the trees beyond the park, the big house beyond the trees, and a small boy riding a bicycle way up at the top of the long diagonal path.
Shane had a long dull drive to L.A. He didn’t feel like doing it. He stopped the van and parked and walked back across the street. The trees and houses at the edge of the park formed a natural bowl. The light was leaving the sky, melting the houses and trees and park into the dark.
He went out on the lawn and lay down on the grass.
The sound of the bicycle on the long path came toward him, the spokes of the bike making a whirring rill–a playing card attached between the spokes snapping against the wires as they turned–that increased and then faded as the boy went by.
Shane lay there. The mornings had been cool, the afternoons warm, the evenings cool again. The sound from the bicycle was gone. The grass was cool and damp. The work season was over with. He heard the crickets start up. He lay there for a while longer, his eyes open, and saw the small orb of soft light that was Venus appear in the dark. A slow wind began flowing across the lawn. Several cars, their headlights on, went by along the street. The wind was warm. The night grew quiet. He saw other stars appear. He sketched their lines–Orion, Polaris, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper–across the dark. There was an order out there.
Getting up, he walked back across the street and got in the van. He started it up and pulled out onto the street. He knew now he’d never had a chance. Funny he hadn’t realized that before.
He switched the headlights on, looking out at the road ahead.