PROMPT: The problem with puppets – and dolls and ventriloquist dummies – is that they occupy what’s called the uncanny valley. That’s the valley between alive and not alive, real and fake.
* * *
When she first arrived, he admired her eyebrows. It sounds strange to the uninitiated, but eyebrows challenge even the best designers. Too bushy and their woolly presence distracts. Too sparse and the artifice becomes obvious. This was true, too, of actual human women. His ex-wife would pluck to near oblivion, bleach the surviving hairs, then draw her version of what a woman’s eyebrows should look like using a makeup pencil more expensive than the ones he used for storyboarding. Which was saying something. But at least his work had brought in income. Still brought in income. Much of which went to his ex-wife. So it goes.
The puppet laid on her back, eyes unblinking beneath her perfect brows. If she could have seen, which, of course, she could not, she would have noticed the way the man’s lip twitched on the right side every time he raised his hand to make a note on the paper-laden clipboard he carried. How archaic, she might have thought, to use paper. She would have also noticed his thinning hair and the way his own eyebrows unfurled as though desperate to escape his face. Although, being a puppet, she may not have thought in such poetic terms.
And what of his eyebrows? If they could speak for themselves, perhaps they would confirm their desire to flee a face such as they’d been consigned to. After all, the sweaty forehead, the broken blood vessels strewn across the nose and upper cheeks – these were not signs of success. Neither was the wax built up and flaking from the ears. If the eyebrows could determine their own fate, they might choose more wisely. Plenty of successful men had unruly eyebrows and, truth be know and if were to come to this, they would not resent sacrificing a few strays for the sake of grooming if it were to mean greater peace for the many.
He lifted her from the box, tugged her dress smooth across her chest, settled her onto his knee. As he shifted her, her eyelids fell, rose, fell, rose again. “Hello!” he said.
“Hello!” she said, or rather, he said in a falsetto voice.
“How’s it going?” he asked. He immediately regretted opening with such a clichéd question. He’d read recently that asking someone how it was going was evidence that one had failed to pay attention. What a person should be able to do, the blog post – titled 7 Ways to Cultivate Charisma – explained, is ask specifics. Such as “How was your trip to Zimbabwe?” or “Did Susie’s surgery take care of things as you’d hoped?” or “Did your daughter get that scholarship to ABSuccess Preschool?” What the post failed to explain was how, especially if you were the sort of person who could barely retain the name of the person you actually knew, how you were also supposed to remember the names of their respective people and those people’s goings-ons. If he could be that charismatic one-on-one, he thought, would he have turned to the stage?
She wanted to answer him. Or rather, she would have wanted to answer him if she’d been real. But of course, she was not. If she was, however, what she would have said would have been, “I’m elated! Despite the fact that a strange man has his hand up my dress, haha, I’m happy to be out of that box!” And then he might laugh and ask if he was really so strange and then she would say, “Have you looked in the mirror lately? Are those eyebrows or confused caterpillars?” Which was not the best joke, she knew, but what did they want from her? She was new to this world, to this role, and had only the input of her masters to work from.
The box, if it was sentient, might have resented her quick dismissal. Had it not cradled her safely from an outpost in China, across the sea, over the dull patchwork of the Midwest to this relative palace? She thought her role was limited, the box might have thought if boxes could think, which of course, they cannot, but if they could, the box might have pointed out, rather petulantly, that it was to live but a brief life, mashed into being, rudely shipped away, soon to be flung on the fire.
He turned her toward him. “I’m sorry, that’s a stupid question,” he said. “Let me rephrase. Are you tired from your long journey?”
She smiled, although since her lips were frozen into the expression they’d given her, she was always smiling, so telling the difference was impossible. “I am tired!” she said, he said. “But I’m so pleased to be here and make your acquaintance.”
He smiled back at her. “Would you like a tour of your new home?”
“Yes!” they said.
He walked her through the house, pointing out the art, the hot-water-on-demand, the bathroom window he left open because the salt air wafting in from the ocean was too sweet to shut out. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I don’t suppose you understand.”
She wanted – if a puppet could want – to reassure him. Maybe she couldn’t smell things, technically, but she liked the idea of it.
“It’s fine!” she, he enthused.
They continued the tour in companionable silence. When they reached the bedroom, he tucked her in before changing into his pajamas. Normally he slept naked, but with her, dummy that she was, being naked felt inappropriate.
If she was real, she would have thanked him. The eyebrows were bad enough.
The eyebrows, if they had eyes of their own, would have rolled them. “Really?” they would have said. At least we’re real. At least, they would have said, we’re real.