Matthew Dexter

Barbie Dolls and Dodge Balls



Dad was dating a new man. He didn’t think I knew about him being gay, but I did. Every afternoon he would go out to the backyard and throw dodge balls at the blooming bougainvilleas. He would brush off the top branches, scattering a hopscotch course of purple, pink, and yellow flowers across the driveway. “Whatcha doing again Kyle?” he would yell.

“Playing with Barbie,” I would say.

I could tell by the shadows on the lawn in late afternoon that he was shaking his head. It always took him a few seconds to react to those words: Barbie. He hated Barbie, would never tell his son he undressed his sister’s Malibu Barbie. That was between him, Barbie, and Jesus.

“Aggh, that’s terrible Kyle,” Dad would say. “You need to put those damn Barbies away--play with the boys down the street.”

Dad was pumping up inflatable pink balls; hairy arms glistening like rusty spokes beneath the sun. The yellow bicycle pump matched his green bicycle shorts and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song played on the radio. I could smell fresh rubber, fresh grass clippings in the wind, Barbie’s hair blowing in blonde locks--borne back by the warm breeze of October. Daddy was always holding me back. Carving a pumpkin while practicing dodge ball, he stabbed a piece of the jack-o’-lantern’s face for an eyehole.

“Barbie is garbage,” he said, twisting his head, mechanically spitting pumpkin seeds in the grass.

He grabbed the ball off the jack-o’-lantern’s scalped head, tossed it into the sinking horizon. Flowers flowing into the air, I petted Barbie’s hair, knowing that Dad still had two dozen balls left. He launched them into the bushes, branches breaking--flowers minutes earlier so thick, now nearly naked, raining rainbows of petals onto the grass. When he finished he lit a joint and told me: “Relax and watch the sunset.” The sun sinking beneath the mountains beckoned his final throw. The ball hit me in the stomach; I lost my wind, hit the earth, and watched the sky turn black. Three Little Birds played on the radio.

I woke beneath the stars, on the box of rubbers--now empty and a perfect blanket for playing with Barbies. Nothing like the smell of fresh rubber and a Barbie straight from the box beneath a full moon. Dad’s truck was gone. I walked into the house and cooked frozen hot dogs. I cursed the ketchup and wished Dad cared about me half as much as his condiments. He loved his students even more. He was a gym teacher. After school he had an intramural league in the gymnasium where he broke ten year olds into three teams and they attacked each other with pink balls for two and a half hours. The showers were always running, and often Dad would disappear for a few minutes to “inspect the situation.”

One afternoon I watched from beneath the bleachers. The boys would try to kill one another with those balls. I listened to the walls and held myself, crouched between the boundaries of your mind where you wonder about whether you will ever have children, and where in the world they will be when a faculty member tries to molest them. God forbid. Steam escaped from the locker room, sneaking into the gymnasium, Dad smiling, complacent, blowing his whistle as the boys waited for their turns.

The boys sat above me, mesh jerseys wet with perspiration, sweat dripping from their hairless legs and arms, waiting for their turn to play. Dad would save all his energy for dodge ball: walking the dogs in the morning by driving them to the doggie park, opening the back door, driving five miles an hour as they chased his Dodge Neon all the way home. The dogs stuck their tongues out and panted. As did the boys after he blasted them with the ball.

“You’re out,” Dad said. “You too Johnny.”

The boys would sulk, walk to the bleachers with their heads down. Dad would always be one of the last players alive, diving across the basketball court like a madman, launching dodge balls as he somersaulted sideways to avoid their organized attacks, often aiming at the testicals of the children so they could feel the sting like a hornet.

After each game, Dad would jog into the showers with one of the boys; water dripping on tiles and spiders spinning webs in dark corners of the ceiling the only witness. Children would listen, positioning themselves outside the door, waiting for Dad to jog out, blow his whistle to start the next game. He would line up dozens of pink balls on the half court line and make the teams back up against opposing walls. His whistle would signal a mad dash toward the balls. “I’m gonna kill ya’ll kids,” Dad said, diving face first, flinging the balls into the faces and scrotums of his opponents as they approached him.

That was the last time I watched dodge ball. Dad was an Alpha Male on the court, but I’m not sure what he was in the bathroom. When he came home he would drink scotch and lock his bedroom door, listen to Pavarotti. I would watch through the keyhole as he put on Mom’s clothes. She disappeared a couple years ago in the middle of the night.

After hot dogs, I decided to put on Mom’s wedding dress, the corset of dead leaves and bougainvillea flowers on my head like an angel. I grabbed the old bicycle pump from the broom closet and filled a dozen dodge balls with air. I waited behind the couch with the lights out.

Wood door swung open. “Heeere’s Daddy,” he said, as I broke his nose with a throw so powerful even Barbie would be proud. Blood trickled onto the carpet; Dad did a sommersault in midair, picked up my head with his palms, while I smiled at Mom’s ghost, he broke my neck through the ceiling.