When people asked her what she did, she said I am an entrepreneur. Her stock in trade was Barbies. Collectively known as such but with separate identities, hairstyles, names—Stacey, Francie, Skipper, Midge. They were old, well loved and used, crafted of hard plastic, with stiff unbendable legs or rubbery flexible ones easily broken by little brothers. Since they were unboxed, their value was cut. Their plastic bodies had been caressed by little girls and fished out of bathtubs. Their faces ruined by mommy’s makeup. Their perfect hair mussed by grubby little fingers.
She’d fixed them up, did what she could do. But there was no getting around the fact that they were damaged goods priced accordingly. The day before each doll convention, Vivian set up the table with all the accessories in the basement. She wanted things to look right. She didn’t want to be dithering over the display as potential customers loomed.
Ironically, the most prized doll in her collection was not a Barbie, but a G.I. Joe nurse doll named Wanda, who appeared to suffer from a serious lack of estrogen. She was no pretty Barbie. Frankly, she read a little pissed—a beefy woman, in a no-nonsense white outfit, starched and serious. She was no concession to any man’s sexy nurse fantasy. Instead of Barbie’s accessories of high heels, hairbrushes, and colorful hose, G.I. Joe Wanda stood primly in her box shod in rubbery flats next to a tiny plastic scalpel, a bedpan, bandages and a pair of crutches. Never opened, she was perfect, poised and secure.
The toy guide valued the mint condition Wanda at $4,000. At the time of her 1967 debut, the toy company had gambled on little girls wanting to play with a female equivalent of the popular G.I. Joe soldier doll—G.I. Jane providing succor to an injured infantryman. But the idea was a bust, and the small amount of dolls manufactured languished on the shelves. No further orders were processed from Hong Kong. Scarcity drove up the value.
Vivian would never forget the day she’d found her, fresh antique stock from a vanished store. Location—the middle of Ohio—an ancient strip mall in a windswept town on an autumn day, next to a hardware store and a dime store. A dime store!—at least fifteen years ago now. A large sign posted out front had said everything must go. She peered through the smeared windows and saw that boxes were piled on boxes. Several customers pawed through cartons.
When she had stepped inside, she almost walked right back out. But then the owner approached her with a desperate look.
“What are you looking for ma’am?”
And she’d said. “Dolls. I’m looking for dolls.”
He smiled and said she might be in luck because he had just brought up some old stock from the basement. He was sure there were dolls in there.
While figuring this was probably just a ploy to keep her there and interested when she could be heading elsewhere, she dutifully stood by while he sliced the side open with a box cutter, the air churning with dust particles. Then he stepped back to allow her to uncover the treasure by herself.
There were a number of toys in the box mixed in with an assortment of glass goldfish bowls and terrariums. But at the bottom was the prize—Nurse Wanda, bought for $10.00. Not out of greed or wanting to cheat the guy. Though, it would be naïve to think she hadn’t had an inkling of its value. But she honestly had thought maybe she could get $100.00 for her tops with the added attraction of owning quite the conversation piece.
So now Wanda stood proudly in the middle of the display table flanking the slim Barbies and the cache of psychedelic doll clothing Vivian had rescued from garage sales. The $4,000 price tag affixed with a sticky note so it would leave no adhesive residue. Nobody bit though, and Vivian was not sure she even wanted them to. Her modest business in Barbie doll outfits and refurbished original dolls was quite enough. She didn’t really want to part with her mascot. She liked to think that Wanda would not have stood for the indignities a Barbie was put through, chewed by dogs, dressed in gaudy outfits, thrown under the bed. She was so much more than just a child’s toy.
Vivian’s weekends spent at flea markets or doll conventions did not exhaust her since she didn’t have a regular job. There was no need. She had not been raised by a family that revered high income occupations. Instead it was police work, retail work, teaching, social work, no work. It was like they hated money.
What would have been the point? Her husband Eddie provided sufficiently and their needs were modest. Slick magazines perused in the grocery checkout line pushed dozens of fancy grownup toys she had no desire to own or even look at. And even the ones touting “simplicity,” required an awful lot of prep. She and Eddie had always lived well below their means. Their time on earth was not a competition but a steady walk toward a finish line, she guessed, while both of them tried as hard as they could for each other.
When she saw people who looked impatient and rushed or overly pleased with themselves—not at all the same thing—she often thought, You know what, Mr. or Mrs. Big Shot, I am happier than you will ever be.
This was the state of many people at the conventions. Some sighed as they perused her wares. Her setup was a bit mundane. She didn’t traffic in the modern special-edition Barbies since she was a bit of a traditionalist. The one thing that lured customers in was Wanda. However, the customers seemed more curious than eager to buy.
Eventually Vivian knew she’d have to let Wanda go and she wondered what price would make her waver. It was easy to resist the jokers. The ones who said she should pay them to take Wanda off her hands. Or—
“Boy, I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley.” “That look on her face reminds me of my ex-wife.” “Can you take her out of the box so I can check something? The really rare Wandas have a super unique stamp on the ass.”
Despite the Toy Guide’s optimistic prediction, getting $4,000 would require an eccentric or a millionaire. But that was okay. Vivian was oddly attached to Wanda. Sometimes she was even the topic of conversation at the breakfast or dinner table.
She and Eddie would speculate on Wanda’s state of mind. Did she prefer the display case or the mantle? Did she want her freedom? Was she scaring the dogs? There were jokes.
When Eddie was in a jovial mood, he would tease her about Wanda. He said: Hah, hah, hah, have you ever considered bringing her out for a threesome and hah, hah, hah, I’ve just about had it with that bitch and the evil way she looks at me.
And Vivian always replied: That’s ridiculous. That would mean I’d have to take her out of the box.
They kidded in this crazy way, longtime companions with an appetite for insults bordering on the pathological. But they understood each other. Always secure in the knowledge that one person’s putdown only stood until the other one topped it.
Sometimes when Eddie was sad he’d say if another woman would look at me, I’d give her a whirl. He’d say this with a sideways look. Vivian knew that all he needed was the right kind of attention to bring this thought to an end.
She remembered how she had first met Eddie. He had come up behind her while she was walking through the dark campus in that meandering way she had—a sober-drunk winding with purpose from side to side.
Anyway, full disclosure, she had been talking to herself. Not answering, but voicing aloud her thoughts as she had explained many times to Eddie on that day and since. She liked to hear her thoughts aloud. They were more concrete that way. And of course, rehearsed statements meant fewer gaffes when she progressed to conversations with others. But first she wanted to ensure that she couched the words in the right context, the right way with precision and simplicity. Because someday she knew that there would be someone right there right beside her to say them to. And it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. So, he caught up with her, after god knows how long he had been listening, and to his credit acted like it was the most natural thing in the world. And so it had continued for the past twenty-five years. Caught in an unguarded moment, she had found someone in front of whom she would never be ashamed.
Elaine Little is a writer, an Army veteran, and mother of three who served stateside as well as overseas. Her past assignments included long-term deployments to Cuba, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. She received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a degree in film and video from Columbia College. She has made several films and written several screenplays. One of them, Bagram, was read by the National Pastime Theater in Chicago. She also wrote for “Pillow Talks,” a Web series that debuted in early 2009. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kore Press anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq,34th Parallel, Cadillac Cicatrix,Downstate Story, Talon Magazine,North Atlantic Review, and Verdad Magazine.