I am nine years old, playing Barbie with my six-year-old sister. Barbie ad her sisters are just starting their day—dressed in saggy stockings with twisted seams. We match up tiny plastic florescent shoes, the perfect size and hardness to send us howling when they are stepped on later tonight. They make a light popping sound when sucked into mom’s vacuum.
Ken is the last Barbie to rise. He’s in the bottom of the box, tossed to the side, his head is twist backwards and he’s missing a shoe. Barbie’s closet is full of sundresses, ball gowns made from the remnant of my mother’s old prom dresses. She has an outfit to match my every mood. Ken’s wardrobe, like my father’s is more limited. He has the mismatched shoes, the work clothes consisting of two brown pants, a gold turtleneck, and 70’s sports jacket. His weekend ware includes a karate outfit, running shorts and swim trunks that smell of chlorine. Ken spent most of his summer floating face down in the neighborhood pool. The crevices between his joints are slightly green and he sports a reverse tan—darker when the swim trunks covered him and lighter where he’s been bleached by the sun.
My sister decides that today Skipper will go to school wearing a pink tutu and orange slippers. Skipper is sporting a shaggy bob and modified bangs—left over from her day at the hair salon. We know we shouldn’t play with scissors. Barbie and her sisters plan on shopping, having a party and trying on clothes—much like all their other day—so I decide Ken must go to work. I retrieve his other shoe and add the brown plaid jacket.
“Goodbye, Dear.” I say in my Ken voice. He air-kisses Barbie, “I’m off to the office.” Barbie adjusts her lime green boa, “Have a nice day, dear.” I reply, slipping Ken under the pale yellow bed skirt. He will spend his work hours among the dust bunnies and Judy Blume books until he comes home for his cold one.
I hear my father approaching, the familiar, constant jingle of his keys that he nervously plays with in his pocket. He opens my door without knocking and stands there without speaking. “We are playing with my Barbie’s,” I offer.
He sips his beer; time is marked off by the soft plop of the tab being pulled from his can. It starts promptly at noon and goes off once, each hour. When he is working on the lawn, he will sometimes call from the yard for my sister or me to get him, “a cold one from the fridge.” I race to serve him, pulling the tab and slipping it into the can, a motion I’ve copied from him. My mother worries he will choke on the tab. I don’t. When she isn’t around, I take short, quick sips while delivering the can to him. A shiver runs down my throat and my jaw tightens as I try to decide if I like it. The carbonation tickles my nose. Perhaps one more sip.
“It’s a beautiful day. You should be outside playing,” he says, shutting the door and leaving us to our play. The sharp scent of his beer remains.
Later that night, I remember Ken is still at work and I retrieve him from under the bed. I turn his head around to the front and wipe off some of the dust. “How was your day, dear?” he asks.
“I played with my Barbie’s.” I tell him softly, handing him a Barbie-sized newspaper. It falls from his green fingers.
“Really? Why don’t you tell me all about it.”