Little Miss appeared in the library on her usual morning schedule, as I was just waking up on the couch, doing a quick morning crawl through the world news on my tablet, and unceremoniously plopped Foxy next to me. I am not fond of Foxy, a toy seemingly designed by someone with both a desire to make me unhappy and an uncanny understanding of exactly how to produce this feeling, and I turned back, still bleary from sleep, to see the threadbare robot fox perched beside me and Little Miss staring down at me.
“Good morning, Little Miss,” I said. She said nothing, but reached for the spot on the back of Foxy that spurs it into a terrifying display of dysfunction. The mechanism that once tipped a threadbare, floor-grimy head in a grim impersonation of life is long since broken, so it just grinds, horribly, and clatters as broken plastic gears clash deep in its little body. Then, firing up ancient silicon, it plays back random strings of low-fi, distorted sounds.
“Wow! Wow! Wow!” it shrills, followed by “Wocka! Wocka! Wocka! AY-ow! AY-ow!” in the kind of bad human beatboxing beloved of the kind of annoying people who believe their brand of annoying to be clever and ironic instead of, well—
“That’s nice, hon, but wouldn’t you prefer to play a game instead?”
Little Miss furrows her brow. The internal and the external are still diffuse concepts for her, so any suspicion that one does not approve of her externalized self as represented in mechanical proxy risks a frown.
“I want us to play with Foxy.”
“That’s nice, but I think I’m not entirely in the mood for Foxy.”
“What’s wrong with Foxy?” the furrow is spreading into a pout.
“I do not particularly care for the sounds Foxy makes.”
The pout turns into a jutting lower lip. Like the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief, conspicuous displays of youthful outrage follow fairly precise patterns.
“You don’t like Foxy?” comes the retort, with the last vowel drawn out into an eeeeeee that’s intended as the anchor for angry tears.
“Foxy is lovely. I don’t care for Foxy’s voice.”
In my head, I want to say that I hate the lame cultural appropriation of human beatboxing as a ironic form too often deployed by the kind of people who buy those giant novelty plastic margarita cups at dreary drunken beach outings, and I don’t care for sound digitized at 6-bit resolution and delivered over scratchy, screeching speakers the size of a chickpea, or for toys that make everything so literal and pre-interpreted that there’s no room for a kid to use their own imagination to give them life, but honestly, I am content enough that she’ll understand when she’s presented with the same thing by her own Little Miss or Little Mister one day. Patience is a key skill in interacting with children.
The angry tears come, briefly, but I have the Uno game out and set up before they can metastasize into a full-fledged tantrum.
I’ve been on her side of things, too.
I sat there, with my lower lip slightly out but not in a pout as much as in the signifier of earnest concentration, with a string and a tab in one hand and my filthy blue-gray Mrs. Beasley doll in the other. With perfect calm, I slow-w-w-wly released the cord, regulating its retreat as my schoolmarmish plastic pal croaked out a word as I thrust her at my father in a kind of demonstrative fervor.
“GRAAAAAAAAACIOUUUUUUUUUUUS,” she growled, in a low, saurian crackle.
I pulled the string back and let it slowly play out again.
“GRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAACIOUUUUUUSSSSSSS MEEEEEEEEE, YOOOOOOOUUURRRRR GEEEEE–”
I let it go and the rest of the sentence blipped by at high speed, like parakeet gossip. My father wrinkled his nose, looking up from the paper.
“Son, why don’t you just let your mother get that fixed?”
I pulled the string and she shrilled out another phrase, which was “Idothinkyou’rethenicestlittlefriendIeverhad,” though you’d have to be a mosquito or someone on a spaceship nearing the speed of light to understand. The newspaper came back up again, a momentary defense against the alternating sounds of squeaky voice and growly voice.
“Mom didn’t get Mrs. Beasley fixed,” I said. “She took her back to Sears Surplus and exchanged her. I like this one.”
“Well, I don’t like this one.”
With grim determination, I pulled the string again to play another phrase, regulating it as best I could this time. With proper control, it sounded almost like it was meant to, albeit with an unearthly warble.
“Lo-o-ong ago, Iwasalittle gi-i-irl, just like you,” she said.
My father huffed.
“That damn doll is broken.”
I shrugged, then slowly pulled the string again. My father folded up the paper and left the room with his coffee cup, looking for a fresh charge of caffeine.
“Do you want to hear a secret?” asked the mock-grandmotherly voice of some anonymous voice actress doing piece work at the doll factory. “I know one.”
“What’s the secret, Mrs. Beasley?”
I pulled the string, but let it out too fast.
Before it could skip to the next phrase, I pulled it back, and let it play out properly.
“If you were a little smaller,” she said, “I could rock you to sleep.”
I just smirked back at her.
“You’re silly, Mrs. Beasley,” I said, and dumped her on the couch to run outside, in search of something new.
My tiny stuffed panda talked, too, but I did the talking, in what my family refers to as “the time when Joe talked in a falsetto for a whole year.”
Of course, Teddy was fairly opinionated on seemingly every subject and had a patrician bearing that Julia Child would have thought was a bit over the top, but I could hardly silence my tiny friend when there were factual errors to correct.
“Son, do you have to talk like that?”
“All high and sing-song.”
“That’s just Teddy, Dad.”
“You don’t…think he’s actually talking, do you?”
I rolled my eyes and giggled at him.
“Teddy is a stuffed animal, Dad. He’s made of mohair, wire, articulated limbs, and a genuine authentic sterling silver tab in his ear.”
“A genuine authentic sterling silver tab, you say?”
“He’s from Western Germany,” I said, with the obvious pride of someone who owned something from Western Germany, back when things were still labeled as being from Western Germany.
“Never mind. As long as you’re clear on who’s talking.”
“Of course,” he said, and went back to the Accent section of the Baltimore Evening Sun.
I tucked Teddy into my pocket and ran outside.
I play a color change card and look over at Foxy, who stands silent on the other side of the room.
“I think I’m going to change to green,” I say. Little Miss smirks, because she’s got a handful of green. I smirk, because I know.
Foxy sits, motionless, and I give him those prison-yard eyes. You can be more broken, you know.
“Four!” Little Miss says, and places a card on the stack.
“Very good, darlin’.”
© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall