Teresa Burns Murphy

Nodders

Gillian Rawlings rested her forehead on the steering wheel and took a deep shuddering breath. Her mother’s white-columned house – lit up for the March meeting of the Kennerly Collectors Club – was visible even when she closed her eyes. Gillian’s heart raced every time she thought of Richard Eastlin backing her into a corner in his office earlier that day, pressing his left hand to the wall as he lifted her skirt with his right, steel blue eyes gleaming, wolfish teeth exposed. She wriggled underneath his arm and scurried across the Byrne College campus where she taught history. Whispers of an affair between Richard Eastlin and another professor, Andrea Klein, swirled around the campus. Both were on Gillian’s pre-tenure review committee. Gillian cringed as she saw herself entering her office building’s elevator, unaware that the back of her skirt was tucked inside her pantyhose. Two students in fraternity jerseys snickered as the elevator door closed. When the doors opened, Gillian stood face to face with the history department’s administrative assistant, waiting to board. Wide-eyed and startled, the woman shrieked, “Dr. Rawlings, your skirt!”

Byrne was in Gillian’s hometown of Kennerly, Arkansas. Gillian worried someone would tell her mother about the incident –  though she couldn’t think of a soul who had the nerve – unless it was Lurlene Fenner, her mother’s best friend. Lurlene probably would have cold-cocked Richard Eastlin, and she wouldn’t care what anybody said. Her therapist’s voice echoed in her mind. “You must face your fears, Gillian.”

Gillian released the seatbelt and got out of her car. She chewed her bottom lip as she walked past the Lexuses and Cadillacs parked along the brick wall that hedged the grounds around her mother’s house, separating it from the surrounding suburban homes. The house was built in the late 1960s when her two older brothers were small. Her father, a lawyer turned businessman, was alive back then. Gillian was a late-in-life child, and she grew up in that house though it never seemed like home. After her father died four years ago, her oldest brother called her, addressing her by her childhood nickname, “Mouse, you’ve got to come home and see after Mother.” What a joke! Her mother needed about as much seeing after as a lion in a field of arthritic antelopes. Gillian pointed out that she was in line for a tenure-track position at the University of Memphis, but her brother, a lawyer in Little Rock, countered, “What if Mother falls and breaks a hip? Besides, there’s a perfectly good college in Kennerly. If you absolutely have to work, get a job at Byrne.” Gillian agreed to return to Kennerly, but at least retained the presence of mind to buy her own house.

Gillian told her mother that she wouldn’t be able to attend the Collectors Club meeting. She said she needed a full night’s rest to prepare for her pre-tenure review the following day. Her mother waved her hand through the air, her pointed nails polished ballet-slipper pink. “Nonsense, Gilly. You simply must be there to support Lurlene.” Another joke! If her mother was a lion, Lurlene Fenner was a tiger. Her therapist’s voice wheedled its way into her head again, “Gillian, you have a curious habit of describing people as animals.”

Finding the front door locked, Gillian rang the doorbell. Within seconds, Cheryl Ann Brock opened the door, ticking her tongue the second she saw Gillian. “We were all wondering whether or not you were going to show up. Mrs. Merten’s already served her spiced tea, but your mama wouldn’t hear of starting the meeting without you.”

Gillian wasn’t sure Cheryl Ann was going to move aside. She stood in the doorway with her lips pressed together, her small brown eyes fixed on Gillian as if she might lift her pudgy hands from her hips and shove Gillian off the porch.

“Sorry. I had to work late.”

Cheryl Ann shook her head and turned to walk back through the foyer. At forty, Cheryl Ann was the only person in the Collectors Club anywhere near Gillian’s age though she looked more matronly than Gillian’s seventy-year-old mother. Cheryl Ann had the full cheeks and rounded body of a bossy cartoon squirrel. People in Kennerly slurred Cheryl Ann’s name, pronouncing it Shurlann. When Cheryl Ann was in high school, she babysat Gillian. Gillian still secretly referred to her as Shurl, the high-flying squirrel. There was her therapist’s voice again, “Gillian, when exactly did you begin this practice of describing people as animals?”

Gillian followed Cheryl Ann across the black and white tiles, past the trompe l’oeil paintings of Italian villas illuminated by a chandelier her mother acquired in England. A formal dining room was on one side of the foyer. On the other side were two doorways – one leading to the library, the other to a parlor where a dozen women sat on overstuffed white couches and chairs sipping tea from her mother’s Limoges cups. The flowery smell of dusting powder sent Gillian into a sneezing fit the instant she entered the room.

“There’s my girl,” Vivian Rawlings purred, her dark eyes shining.

Dressed in a cream-colored pant and sweater ensemble, Vivian was a petite beauty with a cap of curly black hair. Gillian had once alarmed her therapist by saying, “My mother makes other women want to slit their wrists, but they’re afraid of getting blood on her shoes.” Everyone said Gillian was more like her father, a gaunt, shy man with unusually large ears. Gillian inherited her father’s ears, a trait her mother told her she needed to “play down.” She’d spent years trying to keep her big ears hidden beneath her lank brown hair. Gillian waved to her mother who rested her forefinger on her velvety chin, her secret sign for Gillian to smile.

Lurlene Fenner sat next to Vivian. Vivian and Lurlene had gone to elementary school together. Both had been born into poor families, but their pretty faces and shapely bodies had landed them wealthy husbands. Though Vivian looked much younger, Gillian thought Lurlene was the more beautiful woman. Unlike the other women, Lurlene was dressed in jeans. Tanned and tall, she wore garnet-colored cowboy boots and a matching scooped-neck sweater. Lurlene’s hair was ash blond, her wide eyes the smoky green hue of sage. Years ago, Lurlene created a scandal in Kennerly when she married Les Fenner, a chicken farmer who just happened to be the wealthiest man in town. At the time of the marriage, Mr. Fenner was seventy, and Lurlene was nineteen. Mr. Fenner died shortly after the wedding, but Lurlene still wore the engagement ring, a three-carat diamond encircled by a halo of emeralds, a ring Kennerly women had coveted for decades.

Cheryl Ann directed Gillian to a drop-leaf mahogany table where the other collectors had deposited their nodders, that evening’s topic for discussion. Gillian took from her purse a brown ceramic turtle she’d found one summer in Mexico. Its bobbing head resembled a worm protruding from the turtle’s hollow body. She set it next to a tiny bobble-headed armadillo. As Gillian reached for the armadillo, Cheryl Ann took hold of her elbow and ushered her to a small sofa where Louise Winsome sat.

Mrs. Winsome, the mother of Gilly’s boss, Charles Winsome, was eighty-five years old. Though she was impeccably dressed in a rose-colored pantsuit, white hair swept back in a neat bob, fuchsia lipstick expertly applied, Gillian heard she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Mrs. Winsome moved to Kennerly from Georgia decades ago when Charles accepted a teaching position at Byrne. She’d been Gillian’s Sunday school teacher at First United Methodist Church when Gillian was a preschooler.

“Oh, Gilly, Charles is going to be tickled to death when I tell him you were able to join us tonight,” Mrs. Winsome said as Gillian sat down next to her. “He’s been awfully worried that you’re working too hard.”

Mrs. Winsome lived with Charles, her only child. When she said his name, it was as if the heavens might open and a choir of angels descends, singing, “Hallelujah.” She drew out the Cha, ignored the r, and ended with what sounded like a z, so that Charles’s name came out something like Chalz. Just as Gillian opened her mouth to respond, Mrs. Merten, who was the oldest member of the Collectors Club at ninety-three, toddled over with a cup of spiced tea.

Seeing her daughter had been served, Vivian picked up a tiny silver bell and jingled it. “Attention, ladies. Now that Gilly’s here, we can get started.”

Gillian felt her face grow warm as she squirmed under the scrutiny of eyes shifting in her direction.

Vivian, keeping her seat, said, “We’re in for a real treat tonight. Lurlene has a wonderful program for us on nodders, or bobbleheads, as some people like to call them. But first, Cheryl Ann, could you read the minutes from our last meeting?”

Cheryl Ann settled her reading glasses on her upturned nose and succinctly summarized the proceedings of the February meeting.

“That was marvelous, Cheryl Ann,” Lurlene said, provoking a poisonous look from Cheryl Ann.

Lurlene stood and lifted a wicker basket onto the coffee table. “Girls, as you know, our topic this month is nodders, and I have brought a variety for us to look at. Then I’d like for those of you who brought nodders to share your jewels. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

While most of the women chuckled and smoothed their pants, Vivian emitted a full-throated laugh. Cheryl Ann puffed out her cheeks and slowly exhaled.

Mrs. Winsome touched Gillian’s sleeve and whispered, “Oh boy, Gilly, I can’t wait to hear what that strumpet has to say.”

Lurlene began with the history of nodders and brought out a couple of Chinese figurines from the seventeenth century. A chorus of oohs and aahs fluttered across the room. Seeming indifferent to this display of admiration, she moved on to more modern nodders – sports figures and a set of bobble-headed Beatles.

“Now, for my nasty little nodders,” Lurlene said, smiling broadly.

Lurlene took a piece of red tissue paper from her basket and unwrapped two antique hatpins. Both were shaped like daisies on stems of gold. When Lurlene held them by their stems, the bejeweled flowers bobbed up and down.

“These nodders,” Lurlene began, “have a particularly interesting history. Ladies of the evening wore them in their hats during the nineteenth century to attract the attention of their potential customers. As they walked down the street, they alerted the men that they were available.” Lurlene held the hatpins above her head like a pair of devil horns and said in a mock-seductive voice, “Hey there, big boy.”

Mrs. Winsome giggled and whispered, “Probably belonged to her mother.”

Most of the women laughed nervously and shifted in their seats, but Cheryl Ann narrowed her eyes and curled her upper lip.

Lurlene set the hatpins on the coffee table and clasped her hands together with a pop. “Now, for the piece de resistance, my naughtiest nodder. I found him on eBay, girls, and he came all the way from France.”

Lurlene pulled a little porcelain man from her basket. He was in a seated position as if he’d fallen on his rear. In his lap, he held a black derby hat between his splayed legs. A mischievous smile played across his lips. When Lurlene pulled a lever at the man’s back, he lifted his hat and up popped a pink porcelain penis.

Mrs. Merten gasped, and Cheryl Ann said, “Oh. My. God.”

“I thought you’d like that one, Cheryl Ann,” Lurlene said, placing the little man on the coffee table next to a bobble-headed Ringo.

“Finally,” she said, picking up a salt-and-pepper set of blue fish, flinging their tails from an ivy-colored base as if they were springing out of a white-capped lake. “These are my favorite nodders. I simply adore the inscription. Allow me to read it to you. ‘Even fish wouldn’t get caught if they kept their mouths shut.’”

After the other collectors shared their nodders and it was time for refreshments, Gillian ducked into the restroom inside the library. When she came out, she could hear the women’s chatter coming from the dining room. She went back into the parlor and, seeing that no one remained, dropped the little porcelain man into her purse, cushioning him with a wad of toilet paper. Gillian needed something of Lurlene’s – a small piece of Lurlene’s grit. Heart racing, Gillian hurried into the dining room and told her mother that she had to get going.


The next afternoon, Gillian stood at the glass door of the large office where she was instructed to wait for her pre-tenure review meeting. Gillian ignored the calls and voice messages from her mother –  afraid her mother knew she had Lurlene’s nodder. She half expected her mother to roar up to the college any minute and demand to know why she wasn’t answering her phone. Glancing at the little nodding man inside her purse, Gillian pushed open the door.

The administrative assistant looked up from her keyboard and yawned. “Dr. Winsome said to tell you to sit out here until the committee members are ready.”

Gillian positioned herself in a wingback chair outside the conference room so she could see the committee members as they arrived. Andrea Klein and Richard Eastlin came in first. Andrea Klein, svelte and elegant, her loose blond curls framing her simpering face, elbowed Richard Eastlin when she saw Gillian. Gillian slumped forward as her stomach started to churn. Her mother’s voice murmured inside her head, “Don’t slouch, Gilly.” Richard Eastlin bared his teeth and saluted. Gillian suspected the salute was a reference to the navy-blue suit she wore with a white blouse. She’d placed a scarf beneath the blouse’s collar and tied it in a neat bow. The thought that she looked like an Air Force cadet occurred to her, but Gillian wanted to look professional. Once, at a faculty meeting, Andrea Klein leaned toward Richard Eastlin and, in a stage whisper, said, “Don’t you think Dr. Rawlings dresses like an uptight prude?” The comment had prompted Gillian to drive to Memphis that weekend and buy a leather skirt. The saleslady assured Gillian that with her slim build, she could carry it off. The skirt hung in Gillian’s closet with the price tags still attached.

Richard Eastlin said, “Hello, Dr. Rawlings,” but he didn’t wait for her response before following Andrea Klein into the conference room.

Close on their heels was Wade Williams, a small, friendly bear-like man. Tucked under his arm was the binder that contained Gillian’s pre-tenure review file – her course evaluations, her syllabi and research papers as well as other materials she’d added to make the case for advancing herself in the tenure process. She spent hours putting the file together, envisioning the committee members impressed with her hard work.

As he walked past Gillian, Wade Williams said, “You look nice, Gillian. Really, really nice.”

It wasn’t long before Charles Winsome and Dean Puddyphat entered the office. Charles’s face was as narrow as a possum’s, his eyes constricted. Gillian thought Charles’s facial features reflected his life, particularly his tendency to kowtow to his mother and repress his sexuality. “Be careful not to project your feelings onto others, Gillian,” warned her therapist’s voice, which made Gillian wince, prompting Dean Puddyphat to say, “Relax, Dr. Rawlings. This’ll be over before you know it.”

Charles winked. “Keep your seat, Gilly. We’ll get started here in a sec.”

Within minutes, Dean Puddyphat opened the door. “We’re ready for you, Dr. Rawlings.”

Gillian picked up her purse and gingerly placed the straps over her shoulder, careful not to crush the little porcelain man as she went into the conference room. Charles motioned for her to take a seat in the oxblood leather chair at the head of the table. Richard Eastlin licked his lips, Andrea Klein folded her arms across her chest, and Wade Williams opened Gillian’s binder.

Charles, a rare spark of playfulness in his eyes, said, “Mother told me what happened at Collectors Club last night, Gilly.”

Gillian’s throat tightened and try as she might, she couldn’t make a sound come out of her mouth.

But Charles wouldn’t leave it alone. “That Lurlene Fenner’s a caution, isn’t she?”

At the mention of Lurlene Fenner’s name, everyone’s eyes were riveted on Gillian. Saliva pooled in the corners of Dean Puddyphat’s grinning lips, and Gillian’s mother’s voice came rushing into her head, “That fat little dean keeps hounding Lurlene to donate more money to the college.”

“What’d she do now?” Andrea Klein blurted out.

Gillian shifted in her seat and looked down at her shadowy reflection in the tabletop’s veneer. “She gave a presentation to the Kennerly Collectors Club last night on nodders.”

“Knockers?” Richard Eastlin said, sliding his eyes over at Andrea Klein.

“No. Nodders. You know, bobble-headed figurines.” Gillian bobbed her head up and down as if to provide a visual aid.

“Tell them what she said about the hatpins, Gilly,” Charles said.

“Oh,” Gillian said, wishing she had the guts to stand up and leave the room.

She glanced down at her half-open purse sitting on the floor. The little man’s face peeked from the toilet-paper nest she’d fashioned for him, his impish grin egging her on. When she looked up, Gillian began telling the committee members about Lurlene Fenner, affecting Lurlene’s tone, even raising her fingers to her head like devil horns the way Lurlene raised the hatpins. As she looked around the room at the amused faces, she didn’t hear Lurlene’s voice or even the voice of her mother or her therapist. She heard the voice of a trilling mouse that didn’t have the gumption to speak out, much less enough sense to know when it was time to shut the fuck up.

***

Teresa Burns Murphy’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Evening Street Review, Gargoyle Magazine, The Penmen Review, r.kv.r.y, Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Southern Women’s Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, THEMA, The Tower Journal, and Westview. Visit her at http://www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.

 

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