My father was a prodigy who left school at age seventeen to go on the road with a big band. At the pinnacle of his career, which occurred when he was twenty years old, he landed a gig as a trombonist in the Buddy Rich Band until, as I would learn years later, he got fired for being too fucked up – and how fucked up must he have been for a jazz musician to lose his job over that. After Buddy reamed his ass and booted it back to Philadelphia, my dad did a brief stint as a session musician, which meant if someone like Peggy Lee or Sammy Davis, Jr. came to town and needed a trombone player, my father got the call. And so he eked out a living that way, until, he insisted, the Beatles killed jazz.
Out of both money and options, he was forced to take a job selling home improvements which made him even more miserable and abusive, both physically and verbally. But it was an innocent time – an era when the men worked, the women stayed home during the day to cook and clean, and on our black and white television set, husbands and wives still slept in separate beds. I had no idea my life was different than any of my friends’, nor did it ever occur to me to wonder why we were poor even though my father worked for Sears Fucking Roebuck, the mother of all corporations, the company whose Christmas catalogue I eagerly awaited each year, rushing to the toy section to lust over the latest Barbie dolls and accessories.
I didn’t have an authentic Barbie -- I had the cheap imitation model from Woolworth’s, the 1960s’ version of the Dollar Store. I also had fake Ken. Bogus Barbie and Kind-of Ken had plastic limbs which fell off every time I tried to put their flimsy unofficial Barbie/Ken outfits on them which frustrated me to no end but that problem took care of itself once I learned the facts of life at age eight via my best friend’s teenaged cousin. Unlike my friend, who fled the room screaming, I was intrigued and full of ideas. Maybe faux Barbie and Ken could have sex and nine months later I would have a real Barbie? Hell, I would even settle for her little sister Skipper or gal pal Midge. Now that I was privy to how this sex stuff worked, though, I deduced nothing would occur unless Barbie and Ken were naked. Ignoring the fact that they had no genitalia, I tried to position Ken on top of Barbie so they could get it on but Ken kept losing his head…literally. I ended up taping them together and putting them on my bed where I waited impatiently for something to happen and when that didn’t work, I dimmed the lights and left them alone. When Barbie still showed no sign of a baby in her belly, I thought maybe it was motion they were missing, I put the two of them, still taped together horizontally, in my turquoise knock-off Barbie car and raced them down the street at warp speed. This experiment lasted all of two days because Mrs. Dordick at the end of the block called my mother on the telephone and complained, “Gloria, don’t you pay attention to what your child is doing?”
I knew I wasn’t in trouble when my mother could not keep a straight face while questioning me and then I overheard her bragging to her beatnik friends about her cutie-pie free love hippie daughter.
Sears gave my father a briefcase every year as a Christmas gift. After working there for a while, he had a couple of them and my ever resourceful mother took one of his old ones and tried to pass it off as a special gift for me. She made it worse by wrapping it in beautiful paper and ribbon so that I circled it for days, fantasizing about the contents. I remember rushing to open it on Christmas morning and looking at my mother afterward in dull disbelief. Her response? “Oh look, honey, Santa brought a new carrier for your Barbie dolls!”
I made the best of it and kept the case empty except for a washcloth I used as a blanket for Barbie and Ken to procreate comfortably and I only lifted the lid occasionally to check on their progress.
One summer Saturday night I was doing just that when my old man came home very, very drunk because not only did the Beatles kill jazz, we were now in a recession so to augment his salary, he was forced to spend weekends playing his horn at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Suddenly, without any warning, he picked me up by the collar of my nightgown, threw me across the room, grabbed my Barbie case and ran upstairs. I screamed and looked to my mother for help but she had a mortified expression on her face and chased after my father instead.
I followed them up the steps, sobbing uncontrollably, “I want my Barbie!” When I reached the landing, I saw my father throw my case into his bedroom closet but as soon as he caught sight of me, he slammed the door in my face. I retreated and whimpered myself to sleep.
When Monday morning rolled around and he left for Sears, I ran to his closet, grabbed the briefcase and raced back to my room, locking the door behind me. But when I opened it, Barbie and Ken were missing and in their place were bottles of pills, razor blades, tiny cellophane wrapped squares of white powder, and a sandwich baggie filled with smelly green stuff that looked like the oregano we put on pizza. Completely mystified, I returned the briefcase to my father’s closet. I knew I had just uncovered a terrible secret, but it would be years before I understood the ramifications.
My mother eventually returned the right briefcase to me but by then it was too late. I didn’t feel much like playing with dolls anymore.