Recently I came across a photo of my mother introducing me to a doll about an inch or two taller than I am. It is Christmas morning and I am three years old. The doll is called Peter Playpal and it is – literally and metaphorically – that year’s big present from Santa Claus. My mother is doing her best Betty Draper imitation in the image: honey blond hair perfectly coiffed, skirt pressed, impeccably straight legs. She has dressed me to look like the doll: a red blazer, short pants, and red socks. In the photo, I seem bewildered.
I have no memories of playing with the doll, but I have found TV ads for the girl’s version of the toy on YouTube. That doll is named Patti Playpal and based on the 60-second black and white commercial she is utterly terrifying. We’re talking horror movie scary – the sort of doll that replaces you. Or carves you into kebobs. Or chases you into the basement with a meat cleaver. At the very least, the doll is going to wear your clothes (and your shoes) and replace you. In the TV commercial, Patti’s eyes never blink, although I know for a fact that Peter’s eyelids fell whenever he bowed his head. After all, I still have the doll.
I also own Patti, which was never mine when I was a child, but my mother bought years later at a yard sale and thought would work well with her annual Victorian Christmas tableaus. When my parents moved to Florida, they gave my wife and me both Peter and Patti, and the pair have been part of our Halloween tableaus here in Vermont ever since. That means I have cut off and reattached their heads numerous times, drowned them in tubes of Halloween vampire blood, impaled them, hanged them, mummified them, and stuck them with dozens of syringes.
According to family lore, my mother got me the Peter Playpal doll because I used to talk to the mannequins at a department store, now long gone, called Wannamaker’s. (Founder John Wanamaker is famous for saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”) Given the amount of time my mother spent clothes shopping, the fact I talked to mannequins should have surprised no one.
Also according to family lore, the only time I ever played with it was when I packed Peter into one of those toy pedal-powered fire engines meant for small children, and pushed him down the long flight of stairs in our house. Clearly I was trying to kill him before he came to life and killed me. (In my early-twenties, I did in fact write a short story called “Dolls don’t die.” It was, like all of my short stories from that period, a train wreck.)
Years later, one Christmas Eve when my wife and I were newlyweds and spending Christmas with my parents, the two of us – aided and abetted by my older brother – took both Peter and Patti Playpal from my mother’s annual Christmas scene in the living room, undressed them, and left them beside the tree as if they were porn stars. My mother was so proud of us when she found them on Christmas morning.
In any case, after coming across that old photo of Peter and me, I ventured up to the attic to take a look at the dolls. Usually I only visit them the day before Halloween, and it is always in the context of how my wife and I can use them to create something diabolic in our front yard. This time I wanted to see something else: Were there other childhood memories they might trigger? I wasn’t expecting to exhume something tragic; I wasn’t anticipating a wonderful revelation. It was just a little intellectual curiosity.
Instead, however, I got the idea for a book. A novel. I honestly don’t know whether it was the photo or the dolls themselves. And I assure you, there won’t be any dolls coming to life.
But there just might be one in a toy fire truck, barreling one day down a long flight of stairs. This is how memories work and how books are born. Stay tuned.