I found the first one in the gutter. I was walking to school, this must have been when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and I watching my feet, probably in hopes of finding spare change. It was lying near the curb, pink and plump and plastic, with delectable little indentions for knuckles: a disembodied doll arm. Irresistible.
After I put it in my pocket I put my hand in, too. I wanted to feel my prize as I walked. It felt nice, like holding hands. Sort of.
Not long afterwards, I found a leg. Not in the same place, but also in the street. Strange. Was doll-dismemberment a new trend or had de-contextualized sections of fake babies always been lying around in the streets, and I was only now noticing? Either way, the doll parts seemed to be making themselves specifically available to me. Which was nice.
Once word of my doll-part affinity got around, other people started bringing them to me. “I found this in the parking lot at the A & P,” a friend would say, and hand the miniature body part over as if it were my due. As more and more pieces entered my life, my focus expanded from strictly limbs to include heads without bodies and bodies without heads, as well.
My mother-in-law discovered a tiny head while digging in her garden. It was deliciously squashed, the eyes side by side. Cubist.
At the beach I found a broken Barbie the color of cocoa. Not a head in sight. Perfect.
Just last year, as we were driving through Providence’s industrial port. my husband shouted, “Doll’s head!” I pulled over immediately and David braved two lanes of merciless Rhode Island traffic to retrieve the treasure. Heroic.
Doll parts are also available for purchase in craft stores, it turns out. From time to time someone has given me a bag of arms or a single leg. I’m grateful for these gifts, but they feel a little bit like cheating.
I received what remains the centerpiece of my collection on my eighteenth birthday from my best friend. The Woolworth’s on Bloomfield Avenue was closing, and among the spoiled merchandise and discarded display racks behind the store Roma came across a child-sized mannequin. Dismantled. The arm she retrieved for me is the insipid pink of a “flesh” Crayolla from the days before the company discovered people of color. The elbow is pleasantly bent. The fingers are parted in the special V of a Kohane’s benediction and the corresponding Spockean gesture. “Live Long and Prosper.”
I took the mannequin arm to college and propped it in the window of my dorm room. I have propped it in the front window of every place I’ve lived in the thirty years since. A wad of Silly Putty keeps it steady. Friends visiting my new home for the first time see the arm and know they’ve come to the right place.
“We miss your disembodied doll parts in these parts!” my friend Sharon from our old neighborhood in Burlington recently wrote on my Facebook wall. But not everyone shares, or even understands, my affinity for doll parts.
When my high school boyfriend visited me in college and we got into a fight, he pointed to the limbs on my window sill (and the butterfly wings and broken seashells suspended from my ceiling) and told me I was sick. That’s when I knew it was over.
A carpenter working on our house here in Providence took a second-take as he rounded the stairs.
“You have a leg hanging by your window,” he informed me.
When dinner guests ask me to explain, I tell the story about finding the first arm and the Woolworth’s mannequin and so on. They almost always nod, and usually seem satisfied. But sometimes I can see they’re still troubled.
Then I could explain the doll parts’ archetypal resonance. A doll arm represents All Arms, just as in the primers that taught me to read, Dick represented All Brothers and Puff represented All Cats. I could note the artistry of an individual piece – the delicacy of molded toe nails or the molded dimpling of an elbow. I could evoke the poignancy of a damaged and abandoned toy, or speculate about how a specific specimen might have sustained its particular damage.
I could keep going like that for some time, and still draw the same blank stare. And then I could point to my listener’s troubled expression and say, “That’s the appeal.”