It’s been a while since I reached into my giant stack of rejection (and a few acceptance) letters, so I decided it was about time to visit random.org and have it pick me a character to represent the name of the agent, magazine, or publisher who had rejected (or maybe accepted) a submission. When it came back with a Z, I pretty much knew that it was going to have to be a rejection from Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine Zoetrope, as I couldn’t think of any other venue starting with that letter to which I had ever submitted. Although I did find a letter in the “Z” section from one of my cousins, who had read my story “The Short Route” and sent me back a note that it should be expanded into a novel, a movie, or both. (Maybe someday, Susan!) But of course I couldn’t use a letter from a cousin for a Random Rejection, and so, Zoetrope it is!
Now this rejection letter is for my story “Silkscreen”, in which a bereft woman gets herself a set of dolls printed with the faces of her husband and two children. I once saw such dolls advertised for sale somewhere, which is where I got the idea for the story. A quick Google search didn’t turn up that sort of doll, but I did find an article about a company in Japan that will 3D print you a doll with the face and features of your choice. Goodbye silkscreen, hello Uncanny Valley!
“Silkscreen” was eventually published in 2001 by the Canadian magazine Storyteller, in a different version from the one that Zoetrope rejected, with a different (and much better) ending. As it turns out, I already posted the story about ten(!) years ago; you can see the original post here. Or you could just read it below …
Amelia came home late from work and they were waiting, as they always were, on the bench in the foyer. From left to right: Nicholas, as young and handsome as his pictures in their wedding album; Fran, her round, bright-eyed face straight out of her school photo; and Gordon, the baby, smiling the same idiot grin that he’d worn throughout his first birthday party.
“You all waited up for me?” Amelia said as she hung her coat on a peg by the door. “That was sweet.” She hugged each of them in turn, then gathered them all up in her arms and carried them into the kitchen. She arranged them on the counter to watch her make dinner (nothing fancy, just baked beans and a hot dog) and then watch her eat it. “Not much of a feast, I know,” she told them, “but if you were having some, I’d cook something better.” Their faces were smiling, as they always were; they knew she wouldn’t make them eat beans every day.
After dinner and a glance at the television, it was bedtime. Amelia brought the three of them with her, placing the children on the shelf beside the dresser. Nick accompanied her into the bathroom, where she brushed her teeth and changed into her flannel bedclothes. Then it was back into the other room, the warm nightshirt swishing around her ankles. She told them good night and settled into bed, clutching Nick like a child would a teddy bear.
“Good night,” she whispered, into where his ear would be, if it were really him.
And so it went, night after night.
Saturday meant grocery shopping. The day was blustery cold, chilled by a westerly wind heavy with the threat of snow; late April, and still no spring in the air. Maybe there wouldn’t even be a spring this year, Amelia thought; maybe they’d skip right into autumn without bothering with summer. Seemed appropriate, somehow.
She bundled up all three dolls for the trip to the supermarket, but only brought Gordon into the store with her; he was the smallest and couldn’t be left out in the cold. She put him in the baby seat of the cart, cinched the strap around his little waist, and rolled off into the store.
She was picking through the display of canned vegetables when she heard some people talking in the next aisle over. “Did you see that woman pushing the doll?” one voice said.
“Is she crazy or something?”
“She’s harmless.” Pause. Then, in a whisper that was still loud enough for Amelia to hear: “I heard her whole family died in a plane crash. She had a breakdown and tried to kill herself, spent a couple of months in the mental hospital. After she got out, nobody saw her for a while, and then she started showing up with those dolls.”
“I’ve seen those in a catalog,” the first person said. “You send them a photo of a person and they print it on the doll’s face.”
“She’s got one for everybody in her family. It’s really sad.”
“Kind of creepy, if you ask me.”
Amelia shook her head and moved on up the aisle. She felt truly sorry for that poor, strange woman whose entire family had died.
She didn’t know what she would do if that ever happened to her.
Amelia had just finished putting the groceries away when the doorbell rang. She closed up the pantry, set her family down in the living room, and went to the front door. Four of her friends from work stood on the porch, their breath coming out in clouds. She opened the door a crack so the cold wouldn’t come in. “What are you guys doing here?” she asked.
“We came to talk to you,” Vicki said.
“Can we come in?”
“Oh, sure. Sorry.” Amelia stepped back from the door so they could enter. Vicki marched right in; the others followed with a certain reluctance, making perfunctory greetings with little eye contact.
Amelia brought them into the living room. She noticed furtive glances toward the loveseat, where her family sat lined up in a row. Mumbling an apology, she scooped the dolls up in her arms and transferred them to the bench in the front hallway, facing the door so they’d be ready to greet her the next time she came home. She patted Nick on the head as she left.
She found her coworkers in a half-circle near the window, whispering to each other. They stopped and looked at her as she came back into the room. “What’re you talking about?” Amelia asked. “Office gossip?”
After a moment, Vicki said: “Not exactly.”
“Can I get you guys some coffee?”
“Sit down for a minute first.”
Vicki’s tone of voice, more than her words, prompted Amelia to settle onto the bench by the fireplace. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Gerald said, “We’re worried about you.”
“About me? Why?”
“Honey,” Karen said, “you brought a doll in for Take Your Daughter to Work day.”
Amelia laughed. “Well, Fran never would go anywhere without her Barbie. You have a daughter, Karen, you know what I mean.”
A glance passed among them like a photograph of someone’s ex-boyfriend. “We’re not talking about the Barbie,” Karen said.
“Then I don’t understand.”
Gerald got up and went into the front hall. He came back carrying Fran. “This is what we’re talking about. This is the doll you brought to work. It’s not your daughter, Am.”
Amelia smiled. “Who is it, then?”
“It’s not anyone. It’s a doll.”
One of the women muttered, “Nice going, Gerald.”
Amelia turned on them. “This is why you came here? To embarrass me and call me crazy?”
“Nobody’s calling you crazy,” Vicki said. “We just want you to take a step back and take a look at this situation from a distance. You’re treating these dolls like your family, and ignoring the real people who care about you.”
“No I’m not. How can you say that?”
“She’s right,” Karen said. “You never want to have fun anymore. When was the last time you went out with us after work? When was the last time you went to a movie?”
“We all went to the movies last week.”
“With a person.” Gerald gave Fran a little shake. “Not an armload of dolls.”
“Gerald, you’re not helping,” Vicki said.
Amelia plucked Fran out of Gerald’s hand. “We don’t need help,” she said. “We’re fine the way we are.”
Michael jumped to his feet and headed for the hallway. “I can’t listen to this anymore. I’m sorry, Vicki. I shouldn’t have come.”
“Why don’t you all just go?” Amelia said. “We’ll pretend this didn’t happen, and everything will be just like it was—”
“Mike, sit down,” Vicki said. “You too, Amelia. Everything is not going to be just like it was. We’re not leaving until we make you understand that what you’re doing is destructive.”
Mike kept going, though; Amelia heard the front door open and close, felt the rush of cold air. The others didn’t seem inclined to follow him, and after a moment Amelia returned to the bench and sat down again. “I thought you were my friends,” she said, cuddling Fran and not looking at any of them.
Vicki said: “We are.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
“We just want you to get over this and go back to being the old Amelia.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“We want you to get rid of the dolls,” Gerald said.
“Not all at once,” Vicki explained. “One at a time. Say, one a week. You can give one to each of us until they’re all gone.”
“I don’t think I can handle that.”
“Sure you can,” Vicki said. “You’re stronger than you think you are, Am.”
“What’ll you do with them?”
“Nothing,” Vicki said. “We’ll hold onto them, that’s all. You can come and play with them whenever you want to.”
She sat on the bench and they all looked at her, and for a long time no one said anything.
Finally, Amelia spoke. “Promise you’ll let me visit them whenever I want to?”
“Of course we will,” Vicki said.
“And you’ll give them back if I change my mind?”
“If you really need them, we’ll give them back.”
Amelia drew a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
They decided that the best way to remove Amelia’s family members from her life was to reverse the order of their arrival; so when Karen left that day, she took Gordon with her, bundled carefully in his warmest snowsuit. “Don’t let him get too cold,” Amelia said. “He doesn’t like the cold.”
Karen solemnly promised to keep the baby warm.
After the door had closed behind her departing friends, Amelia turned and saw Nick and Fran on the bench, watching her. Had their smiles become accusing grimaces? “Don’t look at me like that. He’ll be fine. I can visit him whenever I want to. We all can.”
Of course, there was no answer.
She went about her usual business for the next week, trying to ignore the emptiness that Gordon’s absence left. It wasn’t easy, especially when she looked at the bench and saw two faces there instead of three; so she filled her time with busy work. She vacuumed. She polished. She cooked batches of food and froze them.
At least one of her friends called every night, to see how she was doing. She always told them she was fine. They always believed her.
And before she knew it, a week had passed, and Vicki stopped by to collect Fran.
“So how are you holding up?” Vicki asked.
“Oh, I’m managing,” Amelia said.
“Glad to hear it. I knew you’d be all right. You just had to take that first step.”
“I guess. You want to stay awhile? I can make us some coffee—”
“Can’t, I’m on my way to my Mom’s.” Vicki had brought a canvas shopping bag; she opened it wide, invitingly.
Amelia hesitated, cradling Fran in the crook of her arm.
“Go ahead, you can do it.”
Amelia closed her eyes and dropped Fran into the bag.
“Attagirl,” Vicki said. “Nothing to it. I’ll call you later, okay?”
After Vicki left, Amelia leaned against the front door for several minutes, trembling. When she had composed herself, she picked up Nick and brought him into the living room. They sat together within the circle of light and warmth from the guttering fire. “It’s just you and me now,” she said. “Like it was at the beginning. Remember how silly we were? Remember how young?” Nick was smiling. He remembered; of course he did. How could he forget? You never forgot your wedding, or those golden early days.
Eventually the fire burned down, and the sun went down, and the room grew dark and cold; but Amelia still sat there, staring into the ashes.
She made herself doubly busy over the next week. Her house and car had never been cleaner; her refrigerator had never been more full, even when the whole family had been there. Knowing Nick would be gone soon, she talked to him for hours. He never talked back, of course, but what did it matter when they only had a few days left?
And a week had passed, before she knew it.
Gerald came to take Nick, which made it harder to give him up; Nick had never had much use for Gerald. Amelia clutched the doll tight and said, “I changed my mind. I want to keep him.”
“We talked about this,” Gerald said. “You need to give them up, all of them.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Sure you can. What difference could one more doll make?”
Amelia hesitated. “I thought we were going to spend more time together after you had the dolls.”
“We will. It’s spring, though, there’s a lot of work to do. Everyone’s a little busy right now, but don’t worry, Am. We’ll be there for you.”
So Amelia gave Nick a hug and handed him over. Gerald pulled a plastic grocery bag out of his coat pocket and dropped Nick into it like a piece of garbage.
“Don’t put him in that,” Amelia said.
“It’s okay,” Gerald said. “I’ll leave the top open so he can breathe.”
And he left.
And Amelia was alone.
What difference could one more doll make?
With Nick gone, the house was a whole different place. It was big. It was empty. There was no one for her to talk to, no one she could take with her from room to room. All the perches where she used to put her family—the bench, the mantel, the shelf in the kitchen, the vanity in the bathroom—were vacant. Time and again she found herself turning to say something to her family, only to remember they were absent.
It was just like the first few weeks after she had come home and found out that they had gotten on a plane to visit Nick’s mother and weren’t coming back.
he made it through a couple of days by not thinking about anything; she would come home from work and her brain would just shut itself off. She hadn’t given up her dolls to become a robot, had she?
Finally, she called Nick’s parents.
She got his mother. As usual, the woman was icy cold. “I’ve told you before,” she said, “that my son and his children don’t want anything to do with you.”
“They’re my children too. I miss them so much.”
“Well, you should have thought about that before you decided you needed to go have a fling and <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>find yourself</span> and get involved in all that crazy … stuff. Did you expect them to just sit and wait for you to come back? The court gave you so many chances before they took away your visitation rights, more chances than you deserved.”
“I was confused. I know I was stupid.”
Pause. “Oh, Amelia,” his mother said, in a different voice. “We all get confused. But we don’t all get stupid.”
“Please ask Nick to call me,” Amelia said. “Please?”
“I’ll ask him, but you know he won’t call. He never does. Goodbye, Amelia.”
Amelia mumbled a farewell. She hung up the phone and stood there leaning on the receiver for a few minutes. The woman was right; Nick never called.
Amelia went into the bedroom and opened the closet. There was one more big box on the shelf, one she had never opened. She had been saving it. Just in case.
he took the box down and unwrapped it, then lifted out the fourth doll, the one with her own picture silk-screened across its face. She dressed the doll in its miniature wedding gown and laid it on the bed as if it were sleeping.
She stared at herself for a long time.
Her friends had been right; it was time to move on. Her old family wasn’t coming back. She needed to start thinking about a new one.
It was time to stop living in the past.
“You sound so much better,” Vicki said. “I knew you’d come out of this okay.”
“I just needed some time to get my head together.” Amelia smiled, and even though Vicki couldn’t see her over the phone she knew it would come through in her voice. “I can’t thank you all enough for what you did.”
“You don’t have to thank us.” Vicki sounded pleased. “We’re just happy you’re okay.”
“I’m better than ever. I’ll see you guys soon, okay?”
“Sure,” Vicki said. “You come back when you’re ready. Your job is waiting for you.”
Amelia hung up, opened the door, and winked at her new husband.
“You can’t keep me down here forever,” he said, tugging on the ankle chain that secured him to the basement wall. It allowed him about five feet of movement, enough to reach the toilet and the cot, but not the door where Amelia stood.
“It’s not forever, Nick,” Amelia said. “It’s just until you stop acting so silly and stop trying to run away.”
“I keep telling you, my name’s not Nick.”
Amelia folded her arms. “See, Nick, that’s the kind of thing I mean.”
“Goddamn it, you crazy bitch, I’m not Nick! You let me out of here right now or so help me God I’ll—”
She stepped out of the room and closed the door. Nick’s shouts and threats were immediately muffled by the soundproofing, so she could hardly even hear them anymore.
Poor Nick. She didn’t know what had gotten into him.
Amelia climbed out of the basement, pausing in the bedroom to check herself one more time in the full-length mirror. The nurse’s uniform looked good on her, she thought. Totally realistic. Maybe once Nick got his head on straight, she’d get him a physician’s outfit and they could play doctor.
Well, she couldn’t stay here all day. She had things to do.
She was going out to the hospital.
Now that she had a husband again, it was time to go get herself a baby.