Wild Yellow Dog, Giant Red Fox
The house is always quiet. The girl, named Millicent, is used to it. She is eight years old and this is all she remembers. She watches her mother, who stands holding a saucepan, at a loss.
“I’ve forgotten what to do next. I don’t know how to work any of this.”
To Millicent, it is as if her mother is on camera. The mother hosts her own local television show exposing products that do not work as they are supposed to. Earlier, she taped a show where she demonstrated a stain remover which could not be properly aimed and which had a faulty pump action. She is funny on the show though in life she is quite grave. There was a man who used to come and visit and take Millicent’s mother out to dinner, but he stopped.
“You are making the prune whip, remember?” The girl indicates the array of chopped, pitted prunes on the cutting board, spread out like bugs. “You need to cook those,” she says. Her mother has on a melon-colored apron. Her sleeves are rolled to her elbows.
“I don’t think we’re ready to start yet, Mother,” the girl says. “And I’ve not had any lunch.”
“Are you asking for lunch?”
“Not that it matters...” The girl wanted to bake cookies, but her mother insisted on the prune whip. And pumpernickel bread. How they love the bread machine!
Her mother puts down the pan and removes the apron. “Let’s lie down, dear. Let’s draw the drapes and have a lie-down. Do not be obdurate. Later we can do the cooking, I promise.”
Her mother’s lips are pale, as if they’ve been iced and arranged on a white plate. The girl is used to this. She would prefer to go outside and sit in the snow.
She has only one baby doll, named Helen. The doll’s hair has been cut short and the plugs of plastic hair are visible where they enter its scalp. It wears a striped sailor dress and sits on the window ledge. Though she doesn’t play with the doll, the girl enjoys its placid expression.
Her bedroom has a spiral staircase leading to a loft, where she sleeps. She requires few toys. There is a foosball table in the corner that belonged to her grandfather. Her mother feels the game would be better suited for a pub. The girl stands at the table, moving the plastic men back and forth with her hands, making them talk. She plays “family” with them even though the mother looks like the father and they both look like the baby.
At Christmas, her grandparents arrive. The grandmother is dressed in a red sweater dress with a fur scarf around her neck. Her boots are high-heeled Italian leather. The grandfather carries a shopping bag full of gifts. He asks for a cocktail. It is nine o’clock in the morning, but they have flown several hours to get there. He needs to smooth out the rough edges. The girl hugs him. She says, “I love you very much.” He smells like coffee and sweat and heavy cologne.
The grandparents give her an old Royal typewriter.
“We’d like one letter per week, Millie. You can send it to our post office box in Florence,” her grandmother says, and when Millicent asks what she should write about, her grandmother says anything at all, the spring rains, the holes in her socks. “It will help us not to miss you so much,” she says. Before they leave, they tell the girl’s mother she must buck up for the child’s sake.
They record their adventures on a cassette recorder the grandmother carries in her pocket. The girl hears her grandmother whisper, “Millie, listen carefully: We’re standing before the Venus de Milo. It’s a sort of statue. It is unutterably beautiful.” There is noise and static and the tape goes quiet for a few seconds and the grandfather says something in an irritable tone the girl can’t decipher.
They send cures from small foreign villages. Ground rosebud, if made into a poultice and slathered on the chest, will cure, upon a single application, asthma. The girl’s mother sniffs at the packets when they arrive, but never opens them.
“Millie, we are on the Left Bank, near the university, resting under a bright green umbrella. We are drinking something orange and syrupy. You would probably like it. We’re just outside the site of a butcher’s who ground up students and made from them a delicious sausage. This was a very long time ago so you mustn’t worry. When we learn the name of this drink we will tell you it.”
Millicent sends them stories about her father, whom she barely remembers. Her father died quickly of something horrible but this is never discussed. In the stories, her father is tall and kind and handsome, but he has two enemies: Wild Yellow Dog and Giant Red Fox. The animals live in dark corners of Millicent’s bedroom.
There is a pause on the tape for traffic noise. The grandmother adds: “Please make your next story a happy one.”
Helen is just fine the way she is, but the girl’s mother wants to fix the doll. Or replace it. Someone is coming over to play today, the daughter of one of the mother’s co-workers at the TV station.
“Maybe she will laugh at your dolly,” the girl’s mother says. “Let’s put Helen in the closet for now.”
Millicent has nervous habits which worry her mother. She makes a constant pill-rolling action with her fingertips. Her mother is convinced she has Parkinson’s disease. The girl agrees to put the doll’s body in the closet. She screws off its head and sets it on her pillow.
She wants to please her mother, to make her smile. She cuts out the pictures of the girls in the newspaper fliers. The girls wear jaunty outfits or sparkling white underwear. In the advertisements, their mouths are open wide, as if they’re laughing heartily. Maybe they’re laughing because they’ve been caught in their underwear. The girls do not have asthma. They ride their bikes uphill into the wind.
The co-worker’s daughter is tall, with a meaty, inscrutable face. She has brought a box of Mike and Ike’s and a stuffed koala named Dick.
“Where’s the ball for this?” she asks, flipping and shifting the rows of foosball men. It has started snowing again and everything in the girl’s room has a grayish cast. Millicent hadn’t realized the game even had a ball to it.
The co-worker’s daughter bounces around the room, touching things, opening drawers.
“This is boring,” she says and runs over and squeezes Millicent’s cheeks hard. She notices the typewriter. There is a clean sheet of paper in it. She types:
“This is stupid,” she says. “I’m calling my mother.”
Millicent rubs her face. “Go ahead. I want you to,” she says. “It’s dangerous here. You should take your friend and go,” she says, picking the koala up off the floor.
Later, she hears the tea kettle’s slow whine gain strength and pitch until it’s screaming. Why doesn’t her mother remove it from the burner? She chews on Helen’s rubbery arm. It tastes like dirt. Her grandparents want a new story, but she can’t find the words. She climbs up to the old typewriter. There are purple smudges under her eyes. Wild Yellow Dog and Giant Red Fox slink in closer, eyeing her.
“You smell bad,” she tells them.
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