The day before your delivery estimate, you find your very own Talk-to-Me Tina drooling inside her packaging on your front stoop. You’ve lived alone here in your childhood home for two years, but still you’re surprised to see your name on a shipping label and not your father’s. Take out your pocket knife, and dig through the packing peanuts. This is Birdwatching Tina. She comes dressed in a floppy hat, a fleece vest, and cargo pants. There are one-inch slate-gray binoculars dangling from her neck. Like the other models—Chemistry Tina, Ballerina Tina, Oil Painter Tina complete with beret—her face is plastic, heart-shaped. There’s a yankable cord on her back so she can speak. Her gimmick is you talk and she listens. She reacts and adapts to her environment. You take her out of her cardboard, untwist the wires tied around her limbs, and say, “Are you an orphan?” Then you pull her cord. As it winds into her back, she says, “I’m two years old. What?”
By the end of the night, you’re at the kitchen table playing Uno, and Tina’s in your old MealTime highchair. She’s aged out of toddlerhood, but she hasn’t grown; she’s still her standard ten-inch height. Though she insists she’s only thirteen, you pour a splash of red wine into her canteen accessory and push it across the table. Hesitating, Tina picks up the canteen, which snaps into place in her grip, then she tastes it.
“Should I be drinking this?” she says.
“What? Grape juice?” You offer her a wink.
“I wish I could wink,” she says, “but I wasn’t made with eyelids.”
You’d heard on TV once that a wink could send a shock through your body equivalent to one-eighth of an orgasm. Tina takes another sip of the wine, emptying her canteen. Studies the seven cards face-up on the MealTime tray, too big for her vinyl hands.
Tina is sixteen when you wake her in the morning. It’s Monday. The school principal phones and asks you where’s Tina. One more unexcused absence and Tina’s off the cheer squad. Reaching in the medicine cabinet, unscrewing the Advil, Tina says she’s wasting her time sitting at a desk seven hours a day. She says she’s always been more an experiential, hands-dirty learner. You say, “Always since yesterday?” She complains about the yellow crime-scene lighting of your bathroom and, squinting, says she wishes you’d buy her sunglasses. You drag her to the kitchen before she can brush her teeth, you shout surprise and point her to the place you’ve set for her at the highchair, but her stomach. Even the smell of food—she’s nauseous.
“Nauseated,” you correct her.
“Whatever,” she says, and though she admits that parsley was a nice touch as a garnish, she won’t eat the ham and cheese frittata you spent two hours learning to cook for her.
She says her body is an art gallery and gets another tattoo: two hummingbirds, tongues extended and tangled in an approximation of love.
“Do hummingbirds have tongues?” you ask outside the tattoo parlor.
“They do,” she says. “Tiny ones.” She’s twenty-three, but she still looks like a toddler. You share a bed that night. Tina demands half of it even though she’s ten inches tall. “Differently-sized,” she says. She stubs her cigarettes out on your lampshade. You tell her to stop and she stubs her cigarettes out on your chest.
Usually the neighbors offer you only the slightest half-wave—you’re the slob who never left home, who waited for his parents to run out the clock—but you return from the Save-A-Lot to find Mrs. May standing at your front door, buzzing the doorbell, and as you come up the front steps behind her, you see Tina in profile, cradled awkwardly in Mrs. May’s arms.
“Found her all the way down at the stop sign,” Mrs. May says. “She told me she’s yours.”
Of course. You’d left the kitchen window propped open. Shut and locked from now on.
“It gets so lonely cooped up in this house,” Tina says once you’ve lowered her into her MealTime highchair.
“I was gone for an hour,” you say. “Dial down the drama. I bought you the Apple Cinnamon Cheerios you wanted.”
“It felt like days,” Tina says. “Weeks, even. But okay. I’ll take the Cheerios.”
You tear open the box and pour her a bowl. Then you remember her size, dump the bowl onto her tray. Let her eat them one at a time.
“I like you,” you say.
The crunch of a Cheerio. “I like you too.”
You tell her you think you’re falling for her.
“Don’t,” she says.
“What if Mrs. May hadn’t found you? What if I’d come home and you were just gone?”
“You’d buy another Tina.”
“No,” you say. “You’re special. I scored a winning touchdown the day I met you.”
“I came here in a box,” she says, “and you don’t even play football.”
“I want to go somewhere far away,” you hear her say, locked in your bathroom with her phone at her ear. You found her an accessory pack in the toy aisle at K-Mart—complete with blowdryer! lipstick!—but the only accessory she’ll touch is her cell phone. “I’d even go back on the FedEx truck,” she says. “It’s just, sometimes I wish I’d never been opened, you know?”
“All you have to do is dream it, girl,” says the voice on the other line. Prerecorded, you suspect. “What’s your dream? Talk to me!”
“I am,” Tina says. “I’m talking to you now.” She spends her evenings in your bathtub reading back issues of Cosmopolitan. Your mother’s. She doesn’t touch the faucet. Running water will fry her brains out, she says.
You’re tired of hearing her prattle on. You give the bathroom door a kick.
“Who are you even talking to in there?” you say.
“Nobody you know,” she shouts back. You hear a page flip.
“I’m defrosting a chicken,” you say.
“Good for you. Enjoy.”
You try the knob.
“Occupied,” Tina says.
“For how long?”
“Jesus. I don’t know.”
“Is something wrong here?” you say.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe. This is starting to feel stuffy.”
“Why don’t you come out?”
There’s a sound like a drill in the house’s siding Friday morning. A woodpecker.
“Listen,” you say, elbow propped on your pillow, a hand held to your ear.
“I’m not all that into birds anymore,” Tina says. She sleeps in red leopard print satin pajamas. Fifty-five now, she has to rock in place before she can stand, and instead of helping her up, you look away. She’s a doll, and you hold her to a certain standard. Your father used to give your mother a thumbs-down when she dressed up in the wrong blouse for country club socials. You take out the bathroom doorknob so Tina can’t click the door shut anymore, then you buy her a bathroom scale. You play her a tape called Fitness Now! You pull her out of the tub, dress her in a leotard and sweatband. Get those limbs moving, you say. On the area rug in front of the sofa, she marches in place, but she can’t keep up with the lady on the screen, who blows a whistle accusingly between toe touches as if she’s in the living room with you, watching beads of sweat leak from Tina’s factory-drilled pores only three minutes into her fitness video.
This tape, Tina says, is for full-size people. She reminds you she is tiny, she is plastic.
All week Tina’s been saying that you should paint the bathroom mint green, that it’s the only thing that’ll make her happy, so you take her to browse the paint samples at Home Depot, but she shits herself in the store and doesn’t tell you it’s happened until after you’ve hefted the paint can into the trunk and buckled her into the passenger seat. Though her cheeks can’t turn hot pink, it’s clear she’s embarrassed; her voice shakes when she tells you, her pull-cord trembles. You yell and you honk the horn and the birds nesting in the broken orange letters of the Home Depot sign take off flying, a deluge of feathers overhead. Launderland’s across the street. There, you undress Tina and place her in the scoop of a bucket seat. After loading her fleece vest and cargo pants into a washer, you take the next seat and offer her your scarf to cover her naked body, but she shakes her head.
“You know? I’m okay. This is the body the manufacturer gave me.” She glances down at her bare chest—no belly button, no breasts. “It is what it is,” she says. She wonders aloud whether Mattel makes tiny plastic walkers. Complains that her vinyl body hasn’t aged along with her. You angle yourself away from her and pick absently at a hangnail.
The drum of the washer completes its first circle.
Sunday morning, Tina’s batteries die.
Yank her cord—nothing. You check her for fever, give her the Heimlich, then you remember you left your screwdriver on top of the refrigerator next to last year’s Christmas cards, the ones you never opened. Didn’t your mother always say she’d never read a Christmas letter with an ounce of truth in it? Didn’t she roll her eyes at the holiday pictures, dad and boys and puppy posed just so? At the kitchen table, you pop off each screw and replace the factory batteries with Energizers, your fingers working fast. You remember Mattel’s warning from the commercial—there is no guarantee that Tina’s adaptive personality, the Tina you’ve come to know, will still be there after changing out her AAAs. Once you put the flesh-tone cover back in place and screw it on, you hold Tina up to the over-sink window, bring her binoculars to her eyes, and point out the lone blue jay in your water oak, and though you sense a slight bob of her head on her fully articulated neck, still when you pull her cord she is quiet, so quiet she won’t even speak her preset phrases, so quiet you notice for the first time how beautiful she looks in your clenched-tight fist.
Her toenails are still painted when we find her. Their fluorescent pink glowing on the ends of pale toes, electric against the river’s edge. I’m walking ahead and see her first, then Trevor—him pushing me away for a better look. Her just lying there, a roadkill stare.
The buzzards—a whole storm of them. They’ve already found her. Some trace lazy circles through the sky’s gray, signaling. Others surround the body, circling her with their ritual.
We try and get closer, try and scare them away. Howling at them like animals, hurling rocks the size of baseballs. We’re doing all this but still can’t remember if she ever told us her name. If she even had one.
“It starts with a K,” Trevor finally says, stomping a foot toward one of the birds—its wings spread, retreating with the rest of them to the closest dock. “K- or maybe M. Maybe it’s Maggie, like Buck’s old pointer.”
“It ain’t Maggie,” I say.
But neither of us know. Dad had only ever called her Baby when she’d stay at the house. Her bloodred Pontiac crooked in the driveway when we’d get off the bus from school. Baby, fetch me them cigarettes. Baby, beer’s in the fridge. Back when she’d fry eggs in bacon grease and slide them straight from the skillet onto paper plates. Crush lipsticked cigarettes into the table’s wood with her skeleton fingers. Baby, them boys can take care of themselves.
Trevor walks the bank now with his arm babycradling rocks, collecting the ones with some weight to them. The ones that feel good in his hand. “Dad probably didn’t know it either,” he says.
I step closer and kneel down and turn my head to see her better, imagining her mouth not half-open in the mud and her hair not dried in ropes to her cheek. I imagine her skin not rusted and her eyes not just holes in her skull. I imagine all this and her bending, reaching for a Budweiser can in our fridge. Jean shorts she had cut herself, frayed and a little uneven, pinching and showing the bottom of each cheek. Trevor would catch me looking and ask: “You thinkin’ about hittin’ that?” and laughing like I didn't know what he meant.
Trevor’s pitching rocks now from the windup like Catfish Hunter. His perfect sliders pounding the dock in gunshot echoes. The birds hissing like leaking gas.
I reach out, touching her. Finger pressing against the skin. Dried mud spiderweb cracking around the flesh of her thigh. I feel the fray of her shorts, trace the curve of stained denim.
“We’ll call her Baby,” I say.
“Baby, Baby, Baby,” Trevor says, another rock leaving his hand.
I stand and look over her. Admire her twisted shape. Think: I’ll remember her in black and white—or with eyes, at least.
The swarm of greasy birds is growing now, lining the crooked dock. They watch from its rails like perfect gargoyles, hearing me clear my throat. Reach for my deepest voice.
“Sorry, Baby,” I say.