Hazel's seventy-six-year-old father had bought a doll. A life-size woman doll. The kind designed to provide a sexual experience that came as close as possible to having sex with a living (or maybe, Hazel thought, a more apt analogy was a very-very-recently deceased) female. Its arrival crate bore an uncanny resemblance to a no-frills pine coffin. It made Hazel recall the passage from Dracula where he ships himself overseas via boat.
The ravaged crate now sat in the middle of his living room, surrounded by an array of tools, both legitimate and makeshift. One of the items on the floor was a can opener. Getting the doll out by himself had required tenacity. There were small pieces of chipped wood everywhere. They made it seem like the crate had harbored an animal that had escaped and was prowling the house.
The mechanical crawl of her father's Rascal mobility scooter announced his arrival behind her, but Hazel's eyes had locked upon the crate. It was big enough for her to climb inside. She could sleep in it. Now that Hazel was technically homeless, she was looking for "available bed" potential in everything she saw.
So could I sleep inside that, or upon it? suddenly seemed like a great question to ask about everything in sight. Maybe the crate would bring the best sleep of her life? It might feel nice to sleep without any extra space, especially after years of trying to sleep with the most space possible between her and the other person in her bed, who was always Byron. In the box there'd be no room to fidget around. No trying to attempt the best position since only one position would be possible. Maybe she'd be able to just lie down and shut off. Recharge like one of the thousand electronic devices Byron owned.
"Owned" was a simplification. He'd also invented them. Byron had founded and built a technologies empire. His wealth and power were a terrifying glimpse of the infinite.
She'd left Byron for good that morning, along with all forms of available funds or identification. Hazel understood that things were not going to end well for her.
Her father would let her stay with him, wouldn't he? It was selfish to ask for asylum—there was nothing harmless about Byron—but she liked to feel she had no other choice. Marriage to an eccentric tech multimillionaire had been kind of isolating.
Her best option was not to think about how she was putting her father's life at risk. But she didn't want to think about the current situation in her father's living room either. There was actually nothing she wanted to think about, so she decided to administer a series of firm bites to her bottom lip and really try to focus on the pain.
"Haze!" Her father's voice was a celebratory roar void of embarrassment. "How the hell are you! I didn't hear you come in."
"I let myself in," Hazel said. Walking up his driveway, Hazel had felt presumptuous entering her father's home with a suitcase, but now, seeing the sizable detritus his newest guest had brought with her, she found some comfort in the fact that she wasn't putting him out luggagewise, even if her presence might be endangering his life. She hadn't come with a giant casket, for instance!
Instead of greeting him, Hazel went to the window and peeked out of the blinds to make sure she hadn't been mistaken. "I didn't see your car parked anywhere so I figured you weren't home."
"Sold it!" her father barked. "I'm not going to need to leave the house much anymore. I'm entering a sort of honeymoon phase with Diane here."
"You sold the station wagon to buy a sex doll?"
Her father cleared his throat over the low purr of the Rascal's motor. The throat clear had been a signal between them for as long as Hazel could remember, a reprimand. It meant she'd used improper terminology and offended someone. For example, Shady Place, the retirement community where her father lived, was a trailer park for adults over fifty-five. Except calling them trailers was frowned upon. Hazel had made the mistake of using the word "trailer" just once when talking to Mrs. Fennigan, her father's garden-obsessed neighbor. Your flowers are like supermodels! Hazel had said. Your flowers are like supermodels! Hazel had said. Except in only good ways that aren't entangled with the violent forces of sexism! When I look at the front of your trailer, I feel like I'm watching an action film starring colors instead of people. The cones and rods in my eyes are starting to ache a little, actually—and the woman had immediately stopped pruning, turned around toward Hazel with the clippers, and started taking tiny steps in Hazel's direction while opening and closing the clippers in a deliberate way, as if they were the jaws of a giant insect. Her father had conspicuously coughed, grabbed Hazel's arm, waved to the neighbor, and pulled Hazel away. Manufactured homes, he'd whispered sharply, you call them manufactured homes, what the hell were you thinking, who the hell raised you?
"Not a doll. This is Diane, Hazel," her father said. "I'm going to have to ask you to acknowledge her personhood. Come on, turn around and say hello. Don't be shy."
Hazel took a deep breath and told herself to be a good sport— she was about to ask him if she could move into his house, after all—but when her eyes took in the entirety of the situation she couldn't stop a petite scream from leaving her mouth. Diane was "riding" on her father's lap; the weight of the doll's torso had tipped it forward against the Rascal's handlebars and the two of them were positioned in such a way that he could very realistically be enjoying her right then. They were both wearing bathrobes. She recognized the faded fleece butterfly print on Diane's; the robe had belonged to Hazel's dead mother.
Hazel knew her father couldn't be expected to pick up on the desperate nature of her drop-in visit, but still. She was finished with pretending objects were human. Byron treated his electronics like lesser wives.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I'd prefer to opt out of this particular delusion." He chuckled, setting his red flesh in motion. Her father was short and ruddy and his complexion was so fraught with broken capillaries that in a certain light his cheeks seemed sculpted from venison. He had a convincing air of physical exhaustion about him at all times, though slightly less so now that he used a scooter due to a botched knee replacement. Pre-scooter, complete strangers often approached him to offer him bottles of water. You look thirsty! they'd say.
It was selfish to ask for asylum—there was nothing harmless about Byron—but she liked to feel she had no other choice.
He was also covered with bright white body hair, which gave a wrongful impression of cuddliness. It reminded Hazel of a type of cactus named "old man cactus," a metaphor gifted from nature. The plant had an inviting, shaggy white coat of fuzz, but the hairs were radial spines concealing a painful layer of central needles below the surface. "I told you she was a firecracker."
It took a moment to realize that her father was talking to Diane, not to her. She sighed. Mostly out of disappointment that she wasn't in a better position to be judgmental. Showing up at her father's home and putting him at risk was indecent. She had no idea what Byron would do when she failed to return that night.
Hazel stared at the gaudy clip-on earrings her father had applied to Diane's earlobes. What was that line Byron quoted when he allowed himself to have a tiny amount of alcohol and his dialogue began to sound lifted from a community-theater rendition of Plato?Man's greatest desire is simply to bring things to life? "Christ, Dad," Hazel said, which surprised her. "Jesus" and its synonyms weren't her usual exclamatory go-to's. But if this wasn't a time for a quasi-swear invoking the religious vocabulary of resurrection, when? "Okay. Fine. Thank you both for having me. How's that?"
"You haven't gotten old yet, Hazel," her father said. "You have to find happiness wherever you can get it."
"So should I call her Diane or Di or Mom?"
"Hazel! She's not trying to be your mother. Play nice already. Will you have a drink with us? I feel like celebrating."
Before she could answer, he'd reversed and begun accelerating toward the kitchen. The Rascal's top speed was just fast enough to make Diane's long red hair flow back in the breeze.
"I feel like celebrating too," Hazel called out, "in the sense that I'd like to completely withdraw from the realities of life." She wasn't sure if her father could hear her or not, over the sounds of the Rascal and the hum of the open refrigerator door; she supposed it didn't matter. "I've never been addicted to drugs or alcohol, so it wouldn't be a relapse . . . is there a name for the first time that a person gets really high on a lot of things, dangerously and possibly fatally high, in one's early thirties? I certainly feel like doing that, though I won't, because I'm afraid of an accident—not dying so much as managing to live but severely damaging my brain. Imagine the Frankensteinian attachments and implants Byron would attempt with me smiling and drooling the whole time. That's probably his greatest fantasy—me as part computer, part vagina, part breasts. I've got to speed up this divorce paperwork! Just kidding. It's pointless for me to file anything; there's no way I could possibly protect myself from Byron in a court of law. Wow, do I wish there were. If I somehow managed to half-kill myself, it would be a real purgatory to have Byron helming my power-of-attorney wheel."
"We can't hear you!" her father called out from the kitchen. "One second!" As the headlamp of the Rascal grew brighter, easing toward the living room through the dark tunnel of the hallway, Hazel thought she spied her father give Diane's earlobe a playful bite.
The basket of the scooter held a six-pack of domestic beer and a box of Ritz crackers. Hazel walked over and opened a can, opened another can for her father. "Is Diane a drinker, Dad?"
He gave her a wink with a glistening eye; he seemed to be on the brink of happy tears. "I drink for the both of us."
"Cheers, Pops." Hazel lifted her can and her father did the same. Somehow they formed an awareness that neither was stop- ping; they both chugged to the bottom and didn't lower their cans until both were empty. He opened another, accelerated just enough to reach it over to Hazel.
"Cheers is right. I'm particularly giddy. It's like a wedding day, but we skipped the boring part and got right to consummation."
Hazel felt what she hoped was a belch rising. "Can I have another beer?"
"I'm serious, Hazel. I know how this must look, but I'm three years away from the average male life expectancy. What was that TV show where contestants had sixty seconds to run around a grocery store and shove as much crap into the cart as possible? That's where I'm at, lifewise: if I don't grab it off the shelves right now, I'll never get to. There's no more procrastinating. Here, let me show you something."
And that's when the bathrobe was lifted. With a quick flip of the wrist, her father relieved Diane of all modesty.
"Oh. Her breasts are huge." Hazel realized she was whispering this with a tone of grievous acceptance, the way she'd report one friend's cancer to another.
"The station wagon was practical," her father acknowledged. "But I won't be missing it."
"How are they sloping upward like that?" Hazel asked. The doll's breasts hung as though Diane were upside down doing a handstand. Her nipples literally pointed toward the ceiling.
"I could hypothesize, Hazel, but I'd have to get a little spiritual on you."
Hazel began to look at the five-foot four-inch silicone princess a little differently now: Penthouse pet from the waist up, Dr. Kevorkian from the waist down.
An ambulance went by, its loud wailing pausing the conversation. It seemed to make her father recall a previously forgotten point. "That's another thing," he added. "Do you remember Reginald and his wife, Sherry?"
Yes, Hazel confirmed, she was not imagining it; there was an overall conical shape to Diane's breasts that was aesthetically energizing—she wondered if she could admit this while still continuing to loathe sex overall to spite Byron. When the trouble had first started, she'd thought it might be enough to just begin despising sex with him, but she soon saw that was just not going to cut it. Hazel knew that it would seem, to one who might be an amateur at marital rancor, that her masturbating while thinking about someone else would be a victory for her—pleasure, orgasm, the thrill of a mental affair—and a loss for Byron. Not so. She'd tried this for a while, and realized that she was becoming more in touch with her sexuality than ever: she was constantly thinking about sex, longing for sex; her body was turning into a Mardi Gras float except instead of throwing out beads it was tossing heavy vapors of pheromones to anyone close enough to smell, which often included Byron. He was delighted. It didn't even matter that they weren't having sex, because she was oozing it; Hazel had a glow and everyone who saw her, she was quite sure, attributed it to Byron fucking her with sovereign competence. That's when she realized: If one wanted to make a house inhospitable, closing off the vents to one room would not be enough. The power must be cut completely. So she shut everything down. And frankly, now, Hazel was a little disturbed by how the first thing in years to stir those embers was a hyperbolic set of plastic tits.
"Reginald?" her father barked. "You know, Sherry's husband. Navy man? Prominent teeth? They usually brought a quiche to the neighborhood potlucks."
"Drawing a blank, Dad. Why?" Curiosity really seemed to want Hazel to reach out and give Diane's left hooter an inquiring squeeze. She wondered if it would feel like those memory-foam mattresses. If she pressed down firmly, would the shape of her fingertip linger?
"I know you kids don't like to hear it, but people don't stop having sex just because they get old." Suddenly Hazel felt quite lucky that she didn't remember what Reginald and Sherry looked like. She felt like she'd won something. "So Reginald and Sherry, you know, they're both retired and fornicating around three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Suddenly Reginald's ticker gives out. Now you've got to understand the physics of this thing—Reginald's barrel-chested and hearty. Sherry's an osteoporotic twig. He collapses on top of her and she's trapped beneath her husband's corpse. Feels like she's being suffocated, can't move. It was like that for over a day. Finally, their son comes over. Because he's a good son and calls every day and she wasn't picking up the phone."
"I'm not good on the phone, Dad!" Hazel interrupted. "And if you're telling this story to inspire me to call more, I'm not sure this particular narrative's prize of getting to be the one to roll your dead nude parent off your live nude parent is the penultimate carrot to dangle, in terms of incentive." For the moment, she decided to refrain from adding that there would be no more calling at all now since she no longer owned a phone.
"It wasn't an indictment. Though I do sometimes think of the many weeks my corpse would have to abide, should I die suddenly, before you'd get a whim to drop by again; just telling the story though. Anyhow, this kind of thing gets into your subconscious. Every date I went on that was there in my head—I'm thinking, 'This lady is way too nice for me to die on top of. She doesn't deserve that.' But Diane here . . . I can die on top of Diane all I want."
Hazel noticed the conversation was failing to lead into a natural segue about how she'd just ended her marriage. She opened another beer.
"All bets are off," he continued. "I don't have to hold back! Of all the ways to go, isn't extinction via sex the best you can think of? Let me tell you something about monitoring your heart rate while you're trying to jerk off: it's for the birds."
"Are you saying you're trying to commit suicide using Diane?" she asked. Hazel began to look at the five-foot four-inch silicone princess a little differently now: Penthousepet from the waist up, Dr. Kevorkian from the waist down. Although the robe had fallen to Diane's waist, her greater mysteries were not visible. "Do these things come with pubes?"
"None of your business," her father snapped. "But yes. And I'm not saying I'm intending to die via intercourse. I'm just saying that I'm going to die, and I'd like to have intercourse many, many, many times before I go, and if that happens to be my chariot out of the natural world, I think that would not be the worst ride to hitch."
"Okay, Dad." Hazel eyed the remaining beers.
"Go ahead, they're yours. I'm already high on simulated lovemaking. Diane exceeded my wildest expectations. I wasn't hoping that it would feel great; I just wanted it to not feel painful—I was worried there'd be, you know, an irritating seam maybe, or that her hair would have a strong manufactured plastic odor, to the point of it seeming like I was undergoing some kind of aversion therapy. Boy was I an idiot. She smells like a new car!"
"I guess that's fitting, seeing that you traded in your old one."
Hazel noticed her father eyeing her empties, his fingers going up into the air one by one, counting. "You're sure thirsty tonight, Haze. Have I noticed before how quickly you drink?"
Her father wasn't the type who liked to feel encroached upon; Hazel knew she needed to make it seem like her moving in was at least half his idea so that he'd feel okay about it. "Well, I'm glad you're set in terms of romantic love," she began. "Speaking of people who might notice if you died though—as in someone who would be in a position to realize your passing on the very day that it occurred—do you ever think a roommate might be nice? Some supplemental human companionship for playing cards, conversing, shooting the breeze?"
Her father let out a hard laugh that caused Diane to plunge sharply forward. Hazel was shocked to find her own arms extending out with worry—she felt instinctually moved to catch the doll and make sure it didn't fall.
"Are you loony? Living alone is the greatest thing that ever happened to me! And now that I've got Diane, that takes it to a whole new level. We can have candlelight dinners naked. I can use her abdomen as a plate! That is something I've never done that I will not mind doing—eating a ham sandwich off the chest of a beautiful woman." He stared once more at Diane's breasts, his brow crumpled with admiring scrutiny. "She's a goddamn miracle. What's the saying? 'Today is the first day of the rest of my life.'"
"A miracle," Hazel mused. In a way, the crate on the floor did resemble an opened tomb, Diane a modern-day Lazarus delivered from stasis to take her place amongst the living.
It was then that her father saw it. He twisted uncomfortably in the seat of his Rascal, his movement pushing Diane's extended arm slightly to the left and into the horn, which gave a resonant, protracted toot.
"Hazel?" he asked. "What's with the suitcase?"
From Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Copyright 2017 Alissa Nutting. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.