Work With What You Got (received an honorable mention at the QWF awards)

This story earned an Honourable Mention at the Quebec Writers’ Federation 2008 awards and was published by Vehicule Press in their anthology: Minority Reports, New English Writing from Quebec, edited by Claude Lalumiere and Elise Moser, 2011.

Work With What You Got

We just came from the Y, eyes red from chlorine and smelling of Vaseline Intensive Care lotion. Under Kmart’s florescent lights, I smile.

“I want that one,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

“Asshole, can’t get the same one as me,” she says.

“Don’t call your sister an asshole,” mom says.

“Mom, she can’t get the same one as me,” she says, voice rising.

“Melli, pick something else,” mom says.

I eyeball the hot pink Barbie outfit my sister covets: Fuschia halter top, disco pants, ultra-high glitter pumps and cotton candy clutch. Barbie looks at me: she’s really enjoying her life right now, I can tell.

I look at my sister, she looks back. Her eyes squint and she gives me that look. It’s threatening and real. I don’t want to go through the old “tie Melanie up with skipping rope and put a pillow over her face” fiasco, so I give up. Instead, I take the outfit I actually want: Emerald green Cinderella gown with diamond necklace and earrings, long black gloves, and shiny pumps. Mom likes it too.

We drive home in the beat-up Thunderbird, the three of us in the front seat, muffler loud and grumbling like dad. Mom hums along to Shadows in the Moonlight, fingers dancing over the steering wheel. I’m tired and I look over at my sister, her eyes closing as she holds tight to her Kmart bag.

We were poor so new stuff was scarce, forcing us to imagine games as well as their accessories. True innovators of our time, our games were painstakingly detailed, crafted for hours, like The Barbie Sessions. Some kids called it ‘playing barbies’, I called them amateurs. Obviously they had no concept of Barbie, never had a heart-to-heart with her about life, Ken, and what she wanted from that relationship. Well, I’ll tell you that it wasn’t lying together naked under the bed only to be pulled out once a month to make porn movies. No, it wasn’t about that. Not all the time anyway. It was about putting your soul into constructing a life out of what you had. It was about Truth. Love. It was about trying to be better than everybody else using some old buttons, scraps of fabric, and plenty of tinfoil.

The next day’s Session commences with me asking my sister to play. As usual, she’s doing something considerably cooler. Betwixt picking her nose and playing 8-tracks, she ponders.

“What’s in it for me?” she asks, her fingers rolling a snot.

“Well, I’ve got some ideas,” I say, floundering, my hands working the air before me. “It’s all mapped out.”

“You’ve got ideas, huh?” she says flatly. She flicks the snot my way; it’s a dry one and I hear it careen into the corner to my left.

“Well, a couple,” I say.

“Mmm. Not sure I feel like it,” she says.

“Come on… You can have Barbie,” I say under my breath.

“What’s that?” She asks, deliberately.

“You can have Barbie,” I say. She analyzes a fingernail then sinks her teeth into it.

“Love to. Can’t,” she says, chewing. I’m dismissed. This makes me want her to play even more and she knows it. I slug off.

Prep time takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an entire afternoon, depending. I troll the house picking up anything shiny that could be associated with wealth and ultimately, happiness. Tinsel from Christmas’ past, buttons and beads, gumball-machine necklaces, safety pins…

With materials gathered, I scout out a nook to begin construction. A staircase mansion or maybe a dresser drawer villa. Sometimes I’d build inside the tent my sister and I’d construct in the living room: Expansive networks of fringed blankets, pillows, afghans and shawls, made structurally sound with golf clubs and encyclopedias, and illuminated by mom’s good bronze lamps, their Baroque cherubs posed around tree trunks with branches covered in burnt-orange droplets. We’d sometimes use them as earrings, hooking them into our ears with their rusted wires, often succumbing to infection.

Like barbies, tents were cause for great contemplation. We engineered them, drafting and redrafting coffee-cup-stained blueprints, forced to pull all-nighters. Construction was a 24-hour affair and by noon the next day we’d be reclining inside over a well-earned meal of fish sticks and ketchup. Between the Barbie Sessions and The Tent Development Project, we were pretty much working full-time.

At the tent’s hub was the great beast: The coffee table. It was so colossal, we could prop one end up on the couch and use it as a slide. It had compartment doors at each end with magnets so strong we’d often find dad’s glasses hanging there, stuck fast.

Knowing my sister was not interested in this Session, I didn’t consult her on the plans. Barbie’s bedroom would be brilliantly designed inside one of the coffee table’s compartments with the rest of the house in its sprawling centre.

Things slowly came together: In the bedroom, a silver compact vanity with tinfoil accoutrements, gold jewelry box bed, Kleenex sheets, tinfoil lamps on lip gloss tables, and velvet rug, once a sunglasses bag now cut open and spread wide.

In the living room were plush facecloth couches, Art Deco soap chairs, and a silver salt shaker lamp with foil shade. Limoges figurines became haunting statues and grass-filled toothpick holders spriggy palms as white dishtowels carpeted hardwood floors under a canister table with safety pin utensils and a lamp droplet chandelier.

Finished, I sit back beneath the tent’s canopies and wonder at my skill. Time to bring Barbie home.

I find her in the bedroom my sister and I share lying on the floor in her disco outfit next to Wendy who, as usual, is naked with body parts of various flesh tones and hair that had been chopped off and subjected to a curling iron – melted synthetic strands a charred clump.

As I look down at Barbie, I smile at the hours of fun ahead. My hand reaches to pluck her off the floor when I notice her flat blue eyes looking towards the door.

“So, yer done huh?” my sister says, “guess yer movin’ her in.” I knew she’d stuck her tight little head beneath the tent, inspected the estate, and rated it five stars.

“I’ll play if I can have the house,” she says.

I look down at Wendy, hair a burnt crisp, one eye scratched off, bite marks on her toes. I breathe deep and pick her up.

“Alright,” I say, “meet you there.”

I go see mom who’s busy folding laundry in her bedroom.

“Mom,” I say.

“Ya,” she says.

“I built Barbie’s house and now Li wants it and I’m stuck with Wendy but she looks like shit. Can I borrow your diamond earrings?”

I look down at Wendy, determined to bring her into lower middle class.

“Looks like she could use some diamonds,” mom says. From her dresser she produces a silk bag and dumps the earrings into my palm: They aren’t real, but they’re real shiny. I smile. Mom smiles. I take the backs off and pierce Wendy’s ears, then we set off to find a plot of land where we’d make do, just like always.

Melanie Lefebvre