Paper Dolls by Robert Scotellaro

The slick booklets are spread out, and he is looking at snapshots of young women, my father, late in life. (Four wives later, two in the ground—my mother was his first.) Hundreds of them, coquettish in uniform squares. From the Philippines, China, Russia. Mail-order brides at the starting gate ready to beat a path to his door. To cook his food, fill his bed, sit with him in front of the TV, asking him, “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” Mentor/messiah, with his feet on firm laps massaged by agile fingers.

“Get real,” I tell him, as he turns the page, stabbing a finger against a smiling face. “A beaut,” he says. “One better than the next. And don’t be such a damn crepe hanger.”

I duck through the flypaper coils dangling from light fixtures, high molding, floor lamps—everywhere in his small apartment. A hanging garden of dead things. Leave a bag of groceries on the table. He is sweating on the couch with every window open. There’s a dumpster out back two stories below. Each window, a smiling invitation.

“Why don’t you just get some screens?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He picks up a handful of Chinese women this time. Glossy with hope and dreams big as his own. I’d given up pushing him to get an air conditioner. Had even offered to pay for one. But he’d rather sweat and navigate the lushness of his hanging glue traps, than watch a penny’s worth of electricity fly out of the wall.

He writes them. At the kitchen table. Drinking beer and belching into the ink. Flowery ink for each. Blues and reds and purples… They write back in broken English on scented paper, and he keeps them in a row (in envelopes with odd stamps) between the toaster and his coffee maker. The exotic beauties he’ll never meet. That chorus line there for him each morning, as he looks up from his scrambled eggs. Pen and fork, interchangeable. Listening to the buzzing, then the silence. The buzzing, then the silence.

Robert Scotellaro once played bongos onstage as Allen Ginsberg recited poetry. His stories and poems have appeared widely; his full-length book of flash fiction is Measuring the Distance. He now lives in San Francisco with his wife, his daughter, and his writing companion, a real cool dog named Addie.

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