The Nesting Doll
By Elena Negron
I sat on the porch steps. I could hear my mother’s melancholic music coming from her bedroom and knew she must have been crying. The sky was littered with clouds, like crumpled pieces of paper thrown to the ground by an angry, flailing god. The cicadas hissed at me from the trees and the wooden porch felt splintered underneath my thighs. I had not cried a drop for my father, though the sun seemed too high in the sky for it to be true. I could see from the porch that my mother’s curtains were drawn. I put the book I had balanced between my knees on the ground, unable to concentrate with Joni Mitchell crooning at me. I stood up, wiped the back of my thighs and wandered into the house.
The front hallway was cluttered with shoes and bags, which we often threw on the floor until the next time we had to go out. The kitchen was a mess too—pans with dried food out on the stove from dinner the night before and half-empty mugs of coffee resting in the sink. On the fridge were pictures of me and my mother, cards from places her friends had been, and—most recently—my acceptance letter to Mississippi State University. She had nearly cried while putting it up, joking that she would follow me there. She partially covered the letter with a photo we had taken at my grandmother’s house the year before. Our shoulders were pressed together as she leaned her head onto me and her long, dark hair tumbled down her arms and mixed with mine. She had placed the photo and said it was so that I would always remember what was most important.
Following the sound of Joni, I found my mother in her bedroom. She was curled up beneath a heavy wool blanket and her long hair splayed out towards me. Her AC unit wasn’t running and the music filled the air between the humid drops of moisture. I sat on the edge of the bed and leaned over to turn down her stereo. I could see that her hairline was damp from sweat.
“Mom, you need to turn on the air conditioner or get out from under the blanket,” I said. She moved slightly so that both shoulders rested on the bed. She turned her head to look at me. Her lips were chapped and beaded with sweat. She didn’t say anything. I turned Joni down more.
“Seriously, get up. You haven’t seen him in years,” I said. It came out much more angrily than I had wanted. But he had been my dad, not hers. She only blinked at me slowly.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked. This particular event probably had little to do with whether I was mad at her or not; she always felt that I was upset with her in some way. But she was often infuriating—the way she drove as if she were the only car on the road, the way she pushed around the chairs in the kitchen when I was still sleeping, the way her voice sounded when she reminded me that it was time to wake up.
“Katrina, I think I have a fever,” she moaned. She looked at me and put a hand to her forehead. I rolled my eyes. She had done the same motion when the detective called earlier in the morning.
“Mom, I have to call Detective Alster back. Are you going to get the body or not? They’re just gonna give it away if you don’t,” I said. Her breathing shuddered slightly. I had begun to imagine what it would be like to attend the funeral. To see pictures and be introduced as his daughter. Maybe he had friends and he had told them about me all his life. Maybe his parents were still alive. When I was eight, I had to do a school project on family trees, and my mom made me fill in the dad’s side with her side, so that it mirrored the “mom” section, as if I were an immaculate conception. Eight year old me had been mortified.
“Of course not. He had nothing to do with us alive, we have nothing to do with him dead,” she snapped. Her mascara smudged underneath her eyes and made her eyebags look even deeper than they were.
I got up and kicked her stereo to the side. It fell and the music stopped. I considered picking it up for a moment before grabbing my mom’s car keys off the dresser. She wouldn’t need the car anyway. She always got like this when something happened. She would lay in bed and say she’s sick and ask me to take her temperature. Of course, she would always feel warm in the summer because she would turn the AC off and layer herself in blankets, and the heat in Mississippi was unrelenting. My grandma said she’d been like that since she was a kid. It was an old trick she had picked up to get out of school.
I turned on the ignition to my mother’s 2010 Toyota Camry. The side had yellow paint scraped on from when I accidentally drove into a pole one day after having my license. It wasn’t new enough to have Bluetooth, but the inside was leather and we could take the car to the beach and not have to worry about staining the seats with gulf water.
“Hi, Grandma. I’m calling again,” I said into the phone, which I had balanced carefully on my leg.
“Katrina, you know you can call as many times as you’d like,” she said. The air in the car felt static as we both waited for the other to say something first. Considering the circumstances, it only felt right that it be her.
“Especially today, you can call as many times as you’d like. And tomorrow, too. And the next day.” It was quiet again and I gassed the car down our winding, dirt driveway. “How is your mother?” she asked.
“She’s in bed. With blankets. She’s saying she has a fever,” I said. My grandmother sighed.
“I guess she cut the AC?” she asked. “Yeah.”
“Maybe it’s best to just leave her. Don’t give her an audience,” Grandma said. I heard my grandfather mumble something on the other side of the phone and my grandma huffed out a sharp breath.
“Call back in a little while. The dog chewed her way out of the fence again,” she said.
I pulled out onto the main road, and I hung up because there wasn’t much left to say. The road was empty, two lanes full of nothing but my own speeding car and the yellow paint on the pavement, pointing where to go.
My friend Jasmine still had her graduation signs in her front yard. Unlike my house, which was unconventionally located behind a barrier of trees keeping us from any other homes or streets, Jasmine’s house was residential. It was painted yellow, a three-bedroom, but Jasmine was an only child so her mother always offered to let me sleep in the spare bedroom when I spent the night. But there was no fun in that during a sleepover, so I always slept in Jasmine’s room, which I think slightly displeased her parents.
Jasmine, who did not have a car after accidentally running it into a ditch during what she described as “a jam session that went too hard”, had taken up riding around with me to escape her family. I would pick her up and take her to her dance classes so that her parents couldn’t watch her through her dance studio’s giant windows. I had tried to join her a few times, but classes were expensive and I didn’t have the dancer’s physique that Jasmine did. She was small, thin-boned, lithe. I was average, if not heavier-set, and couldn’t do more than one pirouette at a time.
Jasmine was already outside when I pulled beside the curb. She was sitting in child-sized rocking chair that sat as decoration on her small porch. Her head hung back at an angle that looked almost painful. Her hair was short and came to her chin, but she had used clips to pin it back in preparation for her dance class. I honked at her and she pulled her head up. She picked up her dance bag and moved slowly towards the car. It seemed that time was not in any particular rush on that day. I rolled down the passenger window.
“Hey,” she said. She bent down so that her arms rested on the window’s frame.
“Hello,” I said. “Enjoying your day?”
She shrugged and leaned in slightly. “So they just…found him? What happened?” she whispered.
“I guess so. I answered the phone and they wanted to talk to me,” I began. “I asked how they knew and they said they did a DNA test. They asked if I knew he was missing, and if I had been in touch with him recently.”
“But you haven’t been in touch with him recently, right?” Jasmine pressed.
“You know that,” I said. I let the statement sit there. I thought back to my conversation with the detective on the phone. His voice had been rough, exact. He had not minced words. I had taken a DNA test a few years before, when I thought I was a sperm donor baby, and uploaded it into some databases. It had matched us together. He’d had no other identification, and he was found half naked and animal-ravaged in the woods. They were investigating for foul play but just needed someone to take the body. When Detective Alster had said this, I expected to feel something. I waited for something, a twinge of sadness or tears. I was surprised when, after a few moments of waiting, I felt nothing.
“They asked if I wanted to identify the body,” I said, very quietly, hoping maybe Jasmine wouldn’t hear. She stuck the top half of her body through the window.
“How could you identify a body you have never seen before?” she said, her voice a hushed shriek. I shrugged.
“Are you going to do it?” she asked.
“I mean, I have never seen him before. All that would do is prove a point,” I said.
“What point?” she pressed.
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked back at her house. When I was sixteen, I had slept in the guest bedroom and cried, silently, after Jasmine’s father had helped us finish our homework and I had heard him tuck her into bed. “You’ll always be my baby,” he said to her from the hallway. It was lighthearted and still earnest, as if he were afraid that she would make fun of him but more afraid that she wouldn’t believe him.
“Do you want a ride to your dance class?” I asked. I had the strong desire not to be alone.
She nodded and said, “Let me tell my parents.”
Jasmine turned back to her house, where her mother stood watch in the front doorway.
“I’m going with Katrina,” Jasmine called. Her mother waved at us as we drove off, her lips pressed together tightly in sympathy. The trees waved at us, too. Each one flashing by, the little limbs swaying back and forth, bidding a safe journey.
“They know his name,” I added, turning a corner carefully.
She jerked her head to look at me. “What is it?”
“His last name is Randall. I think his first name is something with a J. I think he said it was Joseph,” I said.
“Did you look him up?” Jasmine asked.
“Of course I did. I didn’t get anything interesting but I guess I wouldn’t have known either way,” I said. Saying the name out loud, “Joseph Randall” did not strike me in any particular way. It was not a unique name, and Google hadn’t thought so either. When I was young, I would imagine his name was “Moonlight” or “Dragon”—names that belonged to fairy-tale characters. And he would come find me and I would change my name to match his: “Katrina Moonlight” or “Katrina Dragon.” At age eighteen, “Katrina Randall” just didn’t have the same fairy-tale ring to it.
We sat through the rest of the car ride quietly, commenting on memories we had at certain places, lamenting about how far away we would be in college, and snickering at people sweating on the sidewalk. After dropping Jasmine off at her dance studio, I called the medical examiner’s office, who then connected me to Detective Alster.
“I can come see my dad,” I told him after hearing the click of the phone. He immediately began to plan arrangements, asking for information to send me an address and asking if I was over eighteen, if I had a valid driver’s license. He suggested that I bring someone else with me. I thought about my mother and I knew that she would never. There was something about having a little secret that Jasmine didn’t know about, in her quaint and regular little house with parents that cared about what she did with her friend during sleep overs, that felt exciting. It was something I would tell her eventually, but not today. I simply responded to him with an affirmative.
I crept through the town streets slowly, resolutely. I wondered if this was where my father lived, or where he had lived, and if they would tell me. I wondered how to ask for information
without giving myself away. It just didn’t feel fair that he knew me, but I never got to know him. It just felt like the ball was finally in my court. I kept forgetting that it was not a happy occasion. But the ten-year-old in me, the one who had spent hours looking in the mirror picking out which parts of herself couldn’t have come from her mother, felt satisfied. The me that had picked through every hair on my head, examined my nose, which I found too wide for my face, and my dark brown eyes, which sat too low beneath my eyebrows. She would finally know.
When I returned home, my mother was in the kitchen frying eggs. She had put on overalls which she usually left for days of gardening. The air inside was smokey and smelled of burnt grease. There was no longer any music playing, only the hiss of egg against the frying pan. I closed the front door loudly to announce myself. From the doorway, I could see her turn around and she smiled at me faintly.
“Welcome back,” she said. “Eggs?”
I shook my head. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
She turned back to the stove. I went to the living room and sat carefully on the edge of the couch, where I could still watch her.
“There are some pictures on the counter that I pulled for you,” she said. My heart picked up slightly, but when I took the photos from the counter I realized I had seen them before.
Jasmine and I had dug around my mother’s closet one night while she was out, looking for heels to wear to the movie theater when we were fourteen. We found a plastic box labeled “Katrina” and opened it, thinking maybe birthday presents were inside. Instead, we found scraps of pictures, as if they were going to be used in a collage. There were lots of baby pictures, and underneath those were pictures of my mother before I was born. The pictures had holes in them in various places, but always where someone had clearly been before. A hole right above my mother’s head while she sits on a swing, a body-shaped hole next to my mother while she wears a long, blue gown. A hole in the couch next to my mother as she holds up an ultrasound scan, while her graduation gown hangs in the background.
Jasmine and I had quickly put the box back and pretended that we had both not understood what we had seen. Later that night, while we laid in bed, Jasmine turned to me.
“Your mom is sort of weird. Like, she cut up all those pictures,” she said. She pushed her hair behind her ears and looked at me earnestly.
“Yeah. She is,” I agreed. “She hates my dad.”
“I think my mom hates my dad, too,” Jasmine said, trying naively to relate. We’d both been in our indignant teen phases, determined that the world was against us and nothing was fair and convinced that we had the life experience to prove it.
“But does she cut him out of photos?” I asked. She pressed her mouth together quickly and rolled over.
“Let’s just forget about it,” she said. My muscles remembered, they remained tense with anticipation, hoping that maybe my mother would’ve slipped, forgotten to cut up one of the pictures, forgotten to burn out his image. But she had been diligent, determined to make sure I never came across an image of my father, and in all my years I had never found a complete picture.
“All of these are cut up,” I said, leaning against the counter, feigning surprise as if it was the first time I had seen the photos.
“Your dad made me very mad. He sort of sucked, just as a person. And as a dad, too,” she said. “I don’t know why I acted like that this morning. I apologize.” She sucked in a quick breath and slid a fried egg onto a plate. Its yellow eye stared up at me.
“He was mean?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said bluntly. “He was mean. He never cared about me, and maybe he would’ve cared about you but he didn’t stick around long enough for anyone to find out.” She sprinkled salt and pepper on the egg.
Maybe he would have cared about me. It was what I had wondered, whether absent-mindedly or while laying in bed some nights deep in thought. Maybe he would have cared about me. Maybe he just got scared. Maybe he was young, and then just never knew how to find us, how to start again.
“Was he young like you?” I asked, my fingers curling the edges of the photos. She had never been open about this before. She began to cut into the egg and shook her head no.
“He was older. He wasn’t in high school anymore,” she said. It was the most I had ever asked about him. I wondered how much more I could get.
“But I was older, mentally. That’s how I raised you, all on my own.” She paused. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I already said too much. I didn’t need him. We never did. I did a good job. You
think I did a good job, right?” she asked.
She handed me a second fried egg, which I pushed away. She was always trying to convince me, convince herself, that she had done a good job raising me. I thought about Detective Alster, and felt confident that I would do what I had to do to appease the little girl who could never ask questions and who would never get answers.
“Yeah, Mom. You did a good job.”
The medical examiner’s office was in a modern building in a larger, neighboring town. It was unmarked except for a number on the side, lying unsuspecting and low to the ground. It was the kind of building that had two doors to get into the actual lobby, which was spacious enough and mostly gray. There was a desk at the entrance, which split the building into two with long hallways on either side, making a sort of U shape. There were security guards on both sides. The cold in the room shocked my legs, which were accustomed mostly to the damp outside heat. I had expected it to smell bad; it only smelled sterile and disturbed. Two women and a man sat at the desk. One of the women waved me forward.
“Hi,” she said. “How can I help you?”
“I’m here for…I guess I’m supposed to see Mr. Alster. Or Detective Alster. I don’t know what he is,” I said. The woman nodded matter of factly and typed a few things into her computer. She glanced behind me.
“Are you by yourself?” she asked. I looked behind me as well, expecting to maybe see my mother, or Jasmine. I turned back and nodded.
“And how old are you?” she asked.
It was the truth, and yet it felt like a lie. I wondered what would happen if I simply told her Nevermind! and walked back out the door. Maybe it was what I should have done. She asked for my license and handed me paperwork and asked me to sit down. I wrote my full name, my age, my connection to the deceased, my contact information.
Where should the deceased be sent after the examinations are completed? I hadn’t thought about this. I tapped my pencil on the clipboard and wrote “TBD” quickly. I approached the desk and the woman looked up.
“Finished?” she asked.
“Um, not quite. We are still in the process of making funeral arrangements, so I don’t have an answer for this yet,” I said, pointing at the question.
“Do you know when you will have the arrangements made?” she asked, her lips pursed and her words thick.
“Soon,” I said. My voice wavered and her eyes softened. She told me she would make a note, and to let her know as soon as possible. I returned the paper to her and a few moments later, a man with a cleanly-kept beard and a blue plaid shirt turned the corner. The receptionist pointed at me. When he looked at me, I felt like a child in the blue polyester chair. He extended his hand in greeting.
“Katrina? I’m James Alster,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand.
Detective Alster looked around the way the receptionist had. “You come alone?”
“Katrina, these things can be very difficult. It’s very serious,” he said.
I nodded solemnly, and thought to myself I’m about to meet my dad. Instead of saying anything, I followed Alster around the reception desk and down a long hallway. He took me into a room, like a hospital waiting room. He sat me at a wooden table with four identical chairs. On Alster’s side of the table lay a few blank pieces of paper, and he tapped his fingers on them slowly.
”Katrina, let me tell you exactly what is in these photos,” he began. “It’s a man’s face, and he has a few bruises around his mouth. His eyes are open. There are some minor cuts on his forehead.” He detailed the rest of the body, from the mangled neck to the ravaged thighs. My heart rate began to pick up and my stomach began to knot. No, more than knot. It felt as though the world was beginning to swallow me from my stomach outward, sucking me into some invisible vortex. My chest burned and a lump in my throat sat solid. Alster slid the white paper in front of me. The world turned slowly. I wondered if I could turn around, just glimpse the sky through the yellow-painted window frame and make sure the world was still intact.
“Turn it over when you’re ready. We have counselors waiting.”
I glanced at the door and thought about what would happen if I simply got up, and left. I had waited, all this time, just to see him.
I had to be very honest with myself very quickly about why I had done this. It was, plain and simple: I was a little girl in a small and cold room doing what she thought it might take to feel fulfilled, who had gone her whole life without this side of herself. At age seven, age twelve, age sixteen, all the times I imagined what my life would be like if I had any sort of father—it was for her. I was suddenly all of those versions of me, one layered over the other like a nesting doll, the versions of me secretly and very deeply wanting this for myself. And fighting against all of them, was the real-time me, understanding that I was about to see a dead man, a dead father who knew he was a father and chose to let his daughter wonder, for eighteen years. He had created the little Nesting Doll, and now I had to pay the price. I had to experience its reckoning. I had to open each one back up, look them all in the eye, uncover their colors and chipped paints and cracks around the middle.
I stared at the white paper, like it was a test I hadn’t studied for, hoping I could see clues of what it looked like inside. I hoped that I could see evidence of myself through the paper, maybe eyes that looked like mine, the same lips, the same hair. It didn’t matter now. In all the time that I had imagined him alive, I had never really considered that it didn’t matter now. He wasn’t alive and he never would be again. If he’d had nothing to do with me alive, why did I have anything to do with him dead. I flipped the paper over and looked down, and I didn’t know him at all.