The doctor stared over her glasses and leaned closer. She caressed the stumps where Blueberry’s arm and leg had once been. This grandmotherly surgeon, Clare Erickson, was (and still is, as far as I know) our region’s most prominent “dollologist.” She was clearly weighing Blueberry’s prospects. “Do you know what a morgue is?” she said to Lillie, who was seven.
Lillie stared back at Dr. Clare, entranced. And afraid. “No,” she said.
“A morgue is where they keep bodies,” said the doctor. “When my husband died in the hospital, I went to see his body, and then they took him to the morgue, down in the basement of the hospital. They kept him there until they moved him for the funeral.”
“Umm, hmm,” said Lillie politely. Sophie and Max, Lillie’s older twelve-year-sister and ten-year-old brother, looked stunned.
“We have a morgue here, where we keep parts of dolls,” Dr. Clare continued. “But this baby, she’s a bit on the pale side.” She turned to me. “We’ll take a look, though, and if we have any matching parts, she can have them for the cost of attachment.”
Antie Clare’s Doll Hospital has been operating in North St. Paul for thirty years. Here, in this strange suburb in the shadow of a huge snowman statue, nine doll doctors and nurses work on up to three hundred doll patients at any given time. Dr. Clare herself has been doctoring dolls since 1968, the year I was born. This feels meaningful, since the primary patient we’ve brought in is not Blueberry, though her puppy-related injuries are admittedly ghastly, but Jealous, my childhood doll, who is also now mothered by Lillie. Since almost all of the hospital’s customers are adults, Lillie’s presence as an actual child with a sick doll was enough to warrant having her baby rushed ahead of the others, a gesture that surprised and impressed me.
The problems with Jealous date back to the years she spent in the care of Lillie’s older sister, Sophie. The “Sophie years” involved frequent bathing with lots of soap. Jealous developed a range of water-related maladies: missing eyelashes, a split down her plastic abdomen, and–worst of all–irreversibly matted hair that emits a mildly disturbing odor. It was also during the Sophie years that the doll acquired her unfortunate name. (Hyper, Jealous’s sister, has since gone missing.) Blueberry (also named by Sophie, who was stubbornly resistant to conventional naming practices) tagged along with Jealous today only as an afterthought, since her ancestry cannot be traced back further than the toy bin at the Goodwill. Sad to say, this means she doesn’t quite merit the cost of any reconstruction beyond bandaging. But free limbs from the morgue are certainly an unanticipated bonus.
According to the doctor, it’s going to cost less to replace Jealous’s eyes than to repair the lashes. “Anyway,” Dr. Clare said as she pointed to the light blue cornea, “you see how there’s rust in there, and that cloudiness is actually mold.” She explained each procedure directly to Lillie, with the patience of an experienced practitioner. “We can’t fix this hair, so we’re going to shave her head bald and attach a whole new wig. You’re going to like it,” she said. Next, she removed the bandages from Jealous’s torso. “Who did this surgery?”
We all froze, as if somebody was going to be in big trouble. Sophie bravely owned up to her handiwork.
“With work like this, you should be helping at the doll hospital,” said the doctor. She told Lillie that instead of fixing the abdominal crack, she’d fit Jealous with a whole new torso (a steal at five dollars, not counting the limb-reattachment labor).
The paperwork was complete, and it was time to officially check in Jealous and Blueberry. But first they had to be brought up to date on their measles shots, which Lillie and Max administered with relish. The naked, vaccinated dolls had to be placed under a quilt in the crib in the corner of the shop, right beneath the high shelves with rows and rows of headless doll bodies. Nearby sat a wise and watchful Mrs. Beasley, worth a whopping one hundred and fifty dollars–but still humble on account of her drastic homeliness.
I was aware as we left that it’s probably tragic to spend money–let’s just say it was barely more than a hundred dollars–on a worthless doll. But maybe it’s more tragic the way everything in our lives has become disposable. I can’t say where the truth lies and I don’t even want to. But either way, I cannot deny what an odd comfort it is, knowing the doll hospital still exists, after all these years.