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The Rag Dolls of Pompeii

There was no doubt that my neighbor was making scarecrows again, even after our special talk about the dangers that might follow their production, and despite the fact that Jacob had given me his booze-city regrets and swore he was done with this routine: this loony-bin ritual of forging life-size dolls for contemplation and commemoration that had put him in the hospital and had me bringing groceries to his door once he was out and on the mend.

I was in what the people-I-am-no-longer-compelled-by-court-to-talk-to call “denial” about the burlap and broomstick figures. I didn’t want to think that Jacob was back to this alienating task, but I knew that he was, knew that he was privately obsessing in that garage with duct tape and brown grocery bags stuffed with newspapers and pennysavers.

It was Saturday. For everyone down the block that might have meant downtime, but for Jacob and me, two typically destitute-minded fools going through the luck of a shared lotto windfall, it was another day to pace ourselves before our pleasures: for me that meant attending to a stack of Mickey Spillane paperbacks that I never got to once I was distracted by puberty and all its concessions. When the dime store crime lore was over, there would be Jonathan Livingston Seagull, then Flowers for Algernon, and then Flowers in the Attic, and then I was officially done with the nine books I thought I needed to read when I was thirteen. Then it would just be booze and TV.

For Jacob, every day meant his “art.”

My neighbor and I barely knew each other in middle school, and we never spoke in high school. Now, with our joint checking and savings accounts, we might as well have been married.

When I moved back to my childhood home two years ago, after my divorce and after several abortive attempts to secure employment in the same city where my ex-wife and her new husband lived, I was dazed and too dizzy from drink and online dating to even notice any non-pixelated person.

After maybe the fifth time I noticed my neighbor making a face like I should recognize him, I finally said, “Hey, man, do I know you?”

Jacob told me his name, and he told me that he had lived in this house all his life and that we’d gone to school together for some of that time, too. The deal with his words was that I should have known him but that I did not. But that was also my out; since I really didn’t know him, I didn’t feel bad about having no idea who he was.

I nodded in no contest to his assertion and then kept on nodding hello whenever I saw him until I was starting to feel like a set fixture in his life.

One afternoon I was drinking on the porch and, weighing charity against pride, called him over to join me. Two beers in, and all the garbage of our lives started to spill.

I spoke with a poignant fatalism about my failed marriage and the money crimes that led me back to my childhood home; my false tone of contrition was complicated by the fact that I knew all the bad was all my fault, but only in the way that any system of nerves could be at fault for registering pain. I was not sorry for what seemed to have occurred naturally.

Jacob spoke in self-stabbing phrases about what he described as his increasing reclusiveness, which he must have been nursing forever, since I grew up with this man living across the street from me and did not know him. “I never want to leave the house. Then suddenly I do, and then I am gone, and it is like a dream,” he said.

If I was not looking for work (and I wasn’t), I was really not looking for a friend who wanted to tell me how his walks were akin to dreams. But habits happen, and, with what I have been told is a highly-addictive personality, habits happen for sure, so maybe they should even be encouraged for their own sake. The routine I found myself in was nothing to write home about. This was especially true since I was already home: unemployed and being a day-drunk and living in the three-bedroom, suburbia-styled place I grew up in, even as my own folks had found late in life luxe living in a snazzy north Austin condo near the Domain.

Jacob and I bought beer together, and, being broke and buzzed sometimes, we bought lotto tickets, too. This was a three-times-a-week routine that might as well have been therapy or church. We stood on my porch or leaned on my old dirty beige 1988 Mercedes, and he talked about how quiet the street was now that everyone had grown up and moved out, or, if there was a new vampire show he wanted to see, we talked about that. But it was really just me getting everything off my chest about my ex and about how different this city now looked to me, twenty years after I had left it for what I thought would be forever.

I was courting major disappointment just by being in the border city again. When I was a kid, the only thing I ever thought about was getting out. It had been, perhaps, my only goal to never live here as an adult, and right now this was the most adult I had ever been; so, rather than rationalize the failure, I marveled at it as if my return were inevitable.

Jacob let me know that he had never desired to move. He was living in his childhood home too, but he had always lived here and, when his mother died, it was just his own home now. He did not feel he ever had a chance to long for the past or even become nostalgic.

His entire kid life was ever-present and ever-accessible, with his kid drawings framed on the walls and 8MM reels and VHS videos of every major childhood event all awaiting digital transfer. He knew where all his old baby teeth and report cards were. The only difference between boy-Jacob and the man before me now, he insisted, was that these days he drank beer when he watched cartoons instead of orange juice.

I had no idea what he did for money before his mother died. I know he was getting by on some kind of insurance or charity, and his taste in beer was cheap, from what I divined from the crushed cans of Coors and Keystone. The rot Jacob brought to our porch parties was promoted by happy commercials with happy men toasting to good times in the woods with suds that you could spend five bucks on and maybe even expect change.

I did not bug him about what he did or did not want to do with his time. What was the point of Jacob being a forty-two-year-old orphan man if his burnt-out neighbor was going to give him a hard time about the shows he watched or the structure of his days?

Jacob told me exactly what he was prone to.

The man had always wanted to draw. He was encouraged all his life to pursue art, but he held back on his impulse because it was a genuine urge, a growing practice, and the drawing was never going to be enough. When Jacob drew, he just drew people that he had seen and could recall well enough to render. The fact was that the people he drew demanded more from him, more time and more space. Jacob wanted to make his people as real as possible, but he was not that good. He wanted his people to be three-dimensional and just shy of looking like Disneyland animatronics. But these were plans he did not pursue with any ardor. He was honest about his lack of talent. He did not think he could have been any better if he had started earlier in life with his unrealized passion. He drew eyes and mouths, but knew he was no good at depicting what he saw. What he drew was in his head and rose just slightly above solipsistic sketch work.

The more time I spent with Jacob, the more I came to believe that he had never held a job and that maybe this was due to mental issues that were becoming obvious and apparent because he was so stuck on the same topics in a kind of magical no-place way. He talked about his junior high art class watercolor works and how he wished he could get them back. The way he spoke, it was as if he really thought that his eighth-grade drawings and chalk rubbings were locatable on campus still, in a classroom closet unmolested, and then he would kind of snap out of the daydream and speculate about breaking into Lanza Middle School just to see what the place looked like now.

I tried to dissuade what I hoped was a drunk man’s daydream. “It is all different now, Jacob.  I drove back there and saw it was now a vocational tech place, and the track is still there but just for a dismal show.”

“We could sit on the old bleachers and drink our beer there, like maybe you wanted to as a kid but never got to,” he suggested.

“I never wanted to do anything so terrible as that when I was a kid. What kind of kid were you? I only started drinking in my twenties, and look at where I am now, pissing the night away with a man I never even spoke to in middle school.”

“Yeah,” he said. “We weren’t friends.”

I was about to explain to Jacob that I was just joking around for comedic effect but then he added: “I did not have friends. And right now I only talk to you.”

I finished my beer and told him I would check on him the next day. Which I did. Which I would do for many days to come, until that became a hospital visit, and then a re-evaluation of our arrangement, and then an exit strategy.

I was not into playing lotto. As divorce papers and bank statements will show, I have only ever gambled with my life. So when our numbers came on screen, and suddenly Jacob and I were splitting a hundred grand, I didn’t even consider it; I owed everyone everything, and the cash would be eaten up fast if I told a soul about the money. Jacob, in contrast, really wanted to tell people. He would have stopped people on the street. But there was no one to tell. He had not spoken to any relatives since his mother’s funeral almost five years back. I was the only person he talked to.

“Look brother, let’s talk this out. I think we should lay low, do what we want for a year at least. If we are good with a budget, then maybe more than a year. I reason we can, with this kind of jack, sort of find ourselves for a while. You know, dine out or dine in but hit up all our curiosities and then worry about nothing else until self-awareness sets in.”

I was sincere. I was close to desperate about wanting to spend and save in secrecy, but only because I had already gone beyond desperate. So much had gone wrong in my life. I was really thinking that habits were the key: new habits discovered in luxury or in something close to a rehab setting, only with booze and no group.

I was not into playing lotto. As divorce papers and bank statements will show, I have only ever gambled with my life.

I wouldn’t have even bothered trying to sell Jacob on the subject if it had been me that picked up that winning ticket. But that Friday, with the jackpot getting heavier, and me too broke to even spring for the six-pack, it was all Jacob’s cash and Jacob’s lucky numbers. I was just lucky that he was an honest guy. I was not an honest guy. I knew this pretty well from how I had ruined my marriage and how I had been escorted out of the office at the ad agency. My severance package was that the folks at my last gig would not prosecute me for turning petty cash into my personal grab bag. My lack of consideration was something I was learning to deal with during my time off from even pretending to re-enter the job force.

Jacob was an innocent, which was a trait only admirable from afar. He was also a bit of a twit and—I knew for sure, considering how often I let him buy the booze for us—he was a pushover. So there was the obvious and ever-looming threat that he could brag-blab to some hypothetical broke-ass cousins about his newfound middle-class status, and that might muck everything up for us—well, me for sure, since I could just see some concerned aunt getting involved and trying to get me out of my cut.

For a seasonal shut-in, Jacob was a perennial impulse buyer. Even without the means, he would be ordering items online, and would drunk call the shopping channels when he could not sleep and order clocks and purses or no-battery shake-to-activate flashlights and then ask me if I heard him talk to the blonde lady who sells stuff on TV the next day. So it was in my interest to stick close to Jacob and kind of counsel him away from mistakes that might affect that lump sum, which should have lasted us as long as it would take a slow student to earn an associate’s degree.

From my window, I saw him in a baby-blue terrycloth robe with sawed-off palm tree parts under his arms and folded-down cardboard packages, making a studious march about his lawn as if looking for a crying child’s lost green water gun in the just-watered grass.

I stared at his lawn every day from my desk. It had become like a thirty-minute meditation, but it was also my only job. I saw him stretch and run his hand through his new beard and the hair at his temples and thought: Oh Christ, no. I will be shopping for his slippers and buying cans of Ensure for this guy very soon.

These days, with all the self-preservation that comes from not having to consider cash, I do not like to drink before the designated drinking hour, which I had been good enough to keep around 5 p.m. But I also have no talent for talking to Jacob without a beer in hand. So I played Jacques Brel on YouTube and pulled a green bottle of Peroni out of the mini-fridge that I kept stocked with cold brew coffee and cups of Greek yogurt and blackberries and booze for times just like this and made my way to his door.

As I neared, I heard Jacob talking in one of those cartoon voices he provides for scarecrows or dummy-dolls and wondered if one beer was going to be enough.

I knocked on his door loudly three times before Jacob opened the door. He had showered, which was a plus. A shower meant focus enough to turn a faucet.

“I see that the scarecrows are back,” I said.

Jacob smiled, which was also good. Since Jacob was never on meds, you could never really say he was off them. But he was a little off in general, today for sure. I knew this stage pretty well: the happiness before the harrowing impulse to march on the streets.

Rather than acknowledge my comment, Jacob kind of pointed to the sofa where he had taken apart a piñata with a pair of garden shears and was reorganizing the dried-out newspaper to make another garden crucifixion.

“You know where this one is going?” I asked, stepping over a leather pillow near the mess of burlap and newspaper.

He looked rather serious and cleared his throat, then said, “The baseball backstops at Lanza Middle School. Where I used to hide during P.E. and where I used to eat my lunch.”

I didn’t say anything.

This was the fourth time he got the idea for these doll-things since I knew him. I had come to believe that their production precipitated a mood disorder or perhaps what was the most creative end of a mood disorder. Whatever the rhythm, the typically four-foot-high figures, which every five dolls went up to five feet, were a new constant. He had always made these doll-things. When his mother was alive, he would be good enough to toss them out with each season. Things were different now. He kept them. He was maybe even proud of them. Plus, winning the lotto lent him a lucky feeling that was becoming a compulsion to show his work.

Their distribution and public display seemed absolutely tied to his sudden economic upswing.

Right after the win, two days after we knew the money was coming, we gave ourselves a soon-to-be-abandoned allowance and spoke aloud our intentions. Jacob told me his plans for hitting the dirt yard behind a nearby mini-mall and, because I was drinking more right then and thinking I had more to celebrate and just glad to have been cut in on the cash, I even helped him by driving him out to plant his grotesques (what I should have always been calling them), like a reverse scavenger hunt.

I called his people scarecrows out of convenience. They might as well be effigies for a bonfire or homespun crash test dummies or papier-mâché mannequins to storm the psyche. The rag dolls of Pompeii. The scarecrows were a progressive disease.

Prior to coming into cash, the doll men were just a way to use old jackets and jeans he no longer wore and make the house spooky for Halloween. Jacob would make them all year and use them for that one time. They were effective, even glorious for a neighborhood that opted to turn down the lights and risk toilet-tissue retribution rather than spring for treats. And he trashed them afterward with no hoarder’s remorse.

Now it was different. It was January, and the mock people were increasing.

I walked over to see if Jacob maybe wanted to hit a happy hour and saw him tooling away outside on what looked like doll parts. They were in effect Goodwill Frankenstein’s Monsters, now becoming lawn sculpture. The impression was that of parade float parts and a massacre.

“You can’t keep these outside,” I said.

“I didn’t know there was a neighborhood code,” he replied.

“There isn’t. I just don’t want to look at this kind of crazy every morning.”

But Jacob had already been thinking of moving them. That night, when I came over as I did to make sure he was not buying timeshares or making dumb online purchases, he pulled out a Big Chief tablet, one of those wide-ruled newsprint pads for jumbo crayons, an unused school supply from a time his mother felt he should spend most of his second grade learning at home. Jacob relayed his homeschooling to me once over a bottle of Moscato, which he claimed to have picked up by accident but then mixed with apple juice to make it even sweeter, so I had my doubts. He explained to me how, when he was learning at the kitchen table, he was tasked with writing out his plans for the night and for the approaching seasons. Sometimes he’d write his plans out in kid rhymes, such as: This summer will be no bummer for I will run and have fun but be careful of too much sun. As he grew older, he was allowed to drop the rhymes but was still encouraged to make his plans read like a poem. On the light blue lines of the Big Chief Tablet was a list of the places in this town that had forged him: the bicycle track behind Tamarack apartments, a Vacation Bible School with the best air-conditioning ever, a hair salon that turned into a stationery store before turning into a very abandoned monument to the fickle frown of trickle-down in this border town.

We drank, and I noticed cuts all over his arms and fingers from his slipped-up scissor work.

Jacob was the kind of guy who tripped when walking to the mailbox. I got him to swear, for the good of his shins and fingertips, to stop making his people, and he was drunk enough to agree that he would.

“I mean . . . don’t you have enough, already?”

“Yeah, enough to fill a classroom but not an auditorium,” he said and went on to insist that, although we were both so lucky right now, I was the real winner because I had returned to a land that had changed so much during my absence that it might as well have been a new city. Here, a Walmart had been converted to a library, and Rudy’s Flea Market now had an internet presence. The shift from taco joint to sushi bar was unacceptable to Jacob, and he showed me a memory map of all the places that were now no more: the downtown library, the old Mac Newsstand, the dollar theater that even had a fifty-cent night, the Raspa stand that somehow took over the parking lot space of an old Fox Photo booth. All gone, and Jacob felt the absence as an uncelebrated bereavement. And he wanted to do something, however symbolic, about the change. His scarecrows would loiter along a very literal memory lane. He planned on planting them in spooky memento mori all over the city.

I called his people scarecrows out of convenience. They might as well be effigies for a bonfire or homespun crash test dummies or papier-mâché mannequins to storm the psyche.

I didn’t know or care if planting these totemic props all over the city was illegal, but his plans did not sound expensive, so I was simpatico with their execution.

My plans were all self-preserving. I wasn’t a very honest guy, but I was honest with myself about that news. I was done hurting. Even papercuts were out of the question. I would not be using garden shears or going on crazy walks like Jacob. Staying put was the answer. Even in this town I never cared about. All else had failed. Work was trauma, and married life was the pits. I was not out to impress anyone. My plans, which involved nine paperbacks and a daily six-pack, were revisionist and medicinal. I envisioned getting through a stack of my old eighth-grade reading list and then just becoming a substitute teacher or something.

This was not how Jacob felt. Lotto luck had lent him an impulse to move his people out into the world, and the fool was starting to speak his mind too.

“I think,” said Jacob, “that the notion of a village idiot should be cultivated, maybe even something to campaign for, a position to get elected to—carte blanche to wander and wonder and wear something like a medical alert bracelet to maybe inform the authorities of their rights when things get sticky.”

“I think they have that for crazies,” I said, and I took another sip of my beer and waited for him to find a seat before asking when he thought he wanted to start planting his team of totems.

I saw him every day from the window, knew he was alive and that the scarecrow army was happening just fine, so I figured we could discuss a safe disbursal of his dummy work.

When Jacob was building these scarecrows, he was maudlin and active and had a light sweat going all day. Since he did not drive, he walked everywhere, and this was very stupid. No one walks here. It is crazy hot in the Rio Grande Valley, and you look nuts or undocumented, and you get in trouble like that here, or anywhere now.

I called Jacob and left a message on Wednesday to tell him that for sure I did not want him walking his mannequin people out on his own. I would do that for him or with him and come over so we could go over a map of places where the scarecrows would go.

When I thought of how my message sounded, I grew nervous that my words might instigate something in him. I imagined that he would have met my message as if it were a challenge or a wager. So I came to his door to make sure he knew that I would drive him out to the places to see that they were good for the grotesques.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, one of those people who claim to be frightened of dolls. We have the cartels around here. And regular horrible American crime. So to hell with scary dolls or any superstitious juju. But these things that Jacob made . . . on a cinder block they were as tall as my ex-wife, as frail as the one uncle I have that I feel guilty for never seeing; this one dummy-doll with white shoes and a white skirt and tan nylons looked like a school nurse I had a crush on. The point is, they got me thinking of many real and suppressed relationships in my life. These things looked alive in suspended animation and gave me that pressing feeling that independent observations were bound to each figure.

Jacob was not home. I got the hell out of there.

I must have heard the knocking and dreamed it down to nightmare narrative in my sleep. The knocking and the wind chimes being pulled and then finally knocking around to where my bedroom window was, the knocking that woke me to fear at five in the morning. Jacob sprawled out on my porch, having crawled back to the front door to try to knock again. He was fully dressed but could not stand and his shoes were missing. They had flipped off his feet sometime before he woke from having passed out several blocks from our neighborhood, he said. He had crawled here. He could not stand, and somehow he was both numb and in terrible pain.

When I took him to the emergency room, he was talking in an uncooperative but not unfriendly manner to the staff. “What brings you here today?” a nurse asked.

“This fellow brings me here, a true friend brings me here for help, and I have been peeing what looks like Coca-Cola all the way, and I know it must be blood. I am very sick and hurt like I never have hurt before, and I know I will have the shakes soon.”

Jacob had a condition I had never heard of wherein extreme dehydration coupled with his all-day walking and his nonstop drinking had led to muscle breakdown and to pissing blood.

He needed an IV, and he needed to be in the hospital for a week.

During the time he was hydrating and getting x-rays and painkillers and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns, I did not visit him. But I did call his room every night to let him know I would pick him up when he was released.

When I got him, I also got to look at his discharge papers, which had informed me about the sudden rhabdomyolysis that broke him down crawling, his alcoholism, and his bipolar condition that led to this muscle crash. I knew he was a drunk, but I didn’t know he was mental. The contact number he listed was his landline. His personal contact was his dead mother. A few nurses seemed to know him pretty well. When I asked him about his familiarity, he said he had been in this hospital maybe five times in the last three years.


“For episodes and for being really, really drunk and lost. So maybe still for episodes.”

I knew, even just out of the hospital, that he would want to see where to put the scarecrows; he was very much like a child with his demands. With Jacob, this may have even been a sign of health.

The pain and the medical intervention lent my neighbor a calm that elicited respect or perhaps even obedience from me.

As we neared what had been Lanza Middle School, it became obvious from a mood shift in the vehicle that he wanted to stop.

I had prepared for this by bringing a six-pack and a map of the city and some markers for him to felt-tip his plans for me.

We parked where we could look on at the grass field that had been a junior high track field.

“I had no team spirit back then, when we were here,” he said, and I could feel that Jacob was thinking heavy about where his people might go. “But God, I loved those pep rallies. They took up more time than they ever needed to and even not caring about winning a game ever, that pounding in the chest you feel with a school band playing . . . Where else do you get that feeling, right? Where else do you get that kind of sonic assault where it isn’t war noise in an old cartoon?”

I cracked open a beer and offered one to Jacob, who shook his head.

The doctor said he was supposed to remain very hydrated for who knows how long now, so I took a drink for the both of us and rubbed my eyes.

“What I liked about the pep rallies is that we were all there,” Jacob said. “The teachers and the mean kids and the popular kids and the poor kids. We were there and could see each other across from one another, maybe even smiling at how hard the noise was coming at us.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “We never saw each other unless that was happening. Not even at actual games which I never went to.”

Jacob knew of an exception. “We did one time. There was this day when we all saw each other,” he said, and started to recall aloud a time when the whole nation seemed to have its eyes on the Rio Grande Valley. It was back in the Spuds Mackenzie beer commercial days when maybe Punky Brewster was phasing out, but another quirky kid show called Blossom was coming in, and to my head at fourteen years of age, it all seemed timed to adolescent changes. 1989. This college kid with the fatalistic name Mark Kilroy was ritualistically murdered after he traveled down to Mexico during Spring Break by a real-life witch, or something close enough. American TV was all up in the details but could show nothing very gruesome. The Mexican channels, which our rabbit-ear antennas caught, gave all the gore.

One day, amid the satanic panic, maybe an hour after lunch, the kids at Lanza Middle School were being called out of class, and it was getting to feel strange, as if we were all in silent trouble; teachers didn’t know anything either, and were looking around and at the windows. Then there was an intercom call from the principal that Lanza Middle School would be let out early. There had been a threat, and the kids needed to get home. The teachers would all stand outside to watch the students as they waited for parents or got on a bus. The feeling was ceremonial yet unexpected, like a fire drill or like running into classmates you never spoke to while shopping at La Plaza Mall.

“That was a time, an uncoded time, a surprise time, when we all saw each other,” Jacob said.

I drank my beer, then turned the car on and got Jacob back to his place to start on his phase of home healing, walking him to the door and then walking with him to his chair where he would sit until compelled to create once again.

During that time, I realized that even though Jacob was the only person I spoke to, that was still somehow too many people. I kept checking in on him to see how the healing was happening.

The swelling in his lower body had him looking like when Wile E. Coyote took those muscle pills and got those crazy huge cartoon legs. Jacob was down that second week and soon commenced three months of pain and nerves rebuilding.

I brought over glasses of water and drank my beer in front of him while I made sure that the remote control and vitamins were by the EasyChair.

As part of the healing routine, I started watching TV at his place.

In my newfound economic stability, I had become much less of a TV snob than I ever was and now just watched anything, awash in the mystery and gratitude that the programs were, for the most part, people trying very hard to entertain me.

Jacob had his preferences though. He liked dark and he liked epic and episodic and a long series that could eat nights. He had seen all the Buffy and Barnabas shows, so we were looking for more arcane entertainment.

There was a show that had been canceled back when I was too much of a teenager to even want to watch TV called The Widows Between Worlds. Everyone seems to just call it Windows now, as if correcting the title for the program’s careless creators, but there really were no windows in this show, not even a metaphorical or trans-dimensional portal fantasy, and the drama really was all about the actual grieving ladies. I never saw the program and neither had Jacob, so we watched one hour-long episode each night I came over.

The series was about a coven of witches who had all taken the same demon lover, who was then banished to an off-world asylum by an alien do-gooder named Arlo Swann: soap opera styled-mayhem, almost zero comedy, in-fighting among the witches, anthropomorphized beasts, and sentient cloaks. If I wasn’t drinking, I could not have watched.

In the company of dolls, I waited every night at my desk by the window to see if the lights came on.

During the commercial breaks, I would press mute and ask Jacob what his plans were now.

We had, by our calculations, maybe six months left to not worry about work and then maybe we’d have to consider coupons and then maybe getting back to a career. That was, if things did not get complicated or go wrong. My expressed fear was that Jacob would ask me to take care of the money for him. I did not trust myself to not screw him on the cash. That is, I absolutely knew that I would screw him out of his win if there was any way that made sense.

For a while, I thought Jacob needed distraction. Now I knew that what he really needed was a goddamned nurse or a butler really. That was not me.

I drank and then I had that sudden frothy faith that all things were okay. So I did not worry about him or about me or about anything, but I made a point of leaving a course catalog for the local community college around his place and even circled Portuguese and Pottery classes with a red marker. But that was the extent of my help.

Three months out of the hospital and the Widows Between Worlds show ended with no resolution. 

I was on an episode where a dietitian/yoga instructor character named Ria Luce was bringing her clientele eternal youth by whispering a secret word into their ears as the ladies exhaled on an exercise mat, and then the next night, we were back to the first episode of the series: here was the red-haired witch with many freckles and a bob who I had, over the course of my nights of playing nurse to Jacob, come to love, then there was the main antagonist, played by a willowy brunette I recognized from a hotel chain commercial, and finally, all the characters were so slowly introduced.

“Hey, what happened? Was that it? The last show, and now we are back on to the first?”

“Yes, I suppose so. I read online that they might bring back a special TV movie to sew up all loose ends.”

“For real?”

“No. I’m lying. Or maybe I am not lying or maybe I dreamed the scenario,” said Jacob, and he stood to walk me to the door as I got ready to go back to my place. “These pain pills are all just sleep for me now. I need to quit taking them so I can get drunk with you again.”

I realized right then how much Jacob had healed and how little I could do about whatever he had in store for himself.

“Hey, man, you are just only now getting better,” I said and then insisted on talking about the safety measures we would take for the new dolls. “Where do you want them, so I don’t have to worry about you? Where can we place them so that the dolls don’t kill you?”

He smiled his best manic-depressive Mona Lisa smile.

It would have to be in my home. This would save him the walking. He could put them in my house if I was okay with it—and he knew I would have to be—and he could visit the dolls there for a month or two and then maybe gather the strength to trash them.

“My people do nothing for me in my own place and walking them around like I did last time, almost spelled my doom,” he said.

The scheme was upon me now. Jacob was not fit to look after himself, and if I was not going to be in charge (and I did not want to be in charge), then I needed to encourage him to more or less get lost in the safest way possible: in his head.

I said yes, please bring the dolls into my place.

My neighbor had become very good at concocting a certain kind of plain-face mannequin with a featureless off-white visage; the only differentia to his dolls could be measured by their attire: army fatigues or jean jackets, windbreakers or leather mini-skirts.

They were in my kitchen. In my bathroom. When I drank, I drank before them. When I went to sleep, they were by my bed. As the day grew darker, I would feel a gentle tug to step toward Jacob’s work; they were like an army, like the terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang. I let them happen. I let them crowd my world.

My dreams were different with the dolls around, in the way that knowing someone was with you for the night might lead to a different kind of relaxation.

It occurred to me, as I took this better rest, that if I really wanted to follow through with reading those books I had put off reading when I was in the eighth grade, I could also now just watch all the shows I missed or movies I had never seen. I could collect stamps or Archie comics. I could even now buy clothes I wanted to wear back then; they were just T-shirts for bands like the Thompson Twins or Tears or Fears or Transvision Vamp anyway, so why not explore my juvenilia at this point, when exploring might mean the absolute least to me or to anyone? There was no one else, not even Jacob really. There was me, and there were the dolls.

After a week, I felt it was time for Jacob to walk over to visit them like he said he would.

I called, and I got no answer.

Even after no answer, I did not think of him for days and days. It was as it must have been when we were kids living across the street from one another and not speaking.

When I finally got to his place, I unlocked the door and walked to where he always sat and observed a message written on an open Big Chief tablet. The writing itself was a kid-like stab at cursive, and I realized I had never seen a handwritten note by Jacob before. “It got easy for me in this EasyChair. I do not miss my people. The old places are new places, and my nerves are new nerves. I am moving around again. And I will see you when moving around becomes easy too.”

Two weeks later he was still not around.

I checked his cash in the accounts, and it was there, so I left it there.

In the company of dolls, I waited every night at my desk by the window to see if the lights came on.

I felt I might be able to go another week without calling the cops, maybe longer even. Maybe I would just start going in and out of the place to make sure his home looked as if someone was at least housesitting. I needed to check the mail and make sure his bills were paid. That was all I needed to do.

I thought back to that time Jacob spoke of, the time when we were kids being let out of class because of a prank about murder coming for us because a guy named Mark Kilroy had been murdered in Mexico. Geraldo Rivera did a show about the Spring Break tragedy, and someone even called up our school making threats about child-killing. Everyone was being picked up from class, and the teachers stood outside to guard us, and we all saw each other, how much the school cared, how the parents all cared.

I was a fourteen-year-old, and I prayed for the safety of all the children, and I prayed for the soul of the witch lady who had boiled Mark Kilroy’s brains in a cauldron, and I prayed for the family of Mark Kilroy. When you were so scared for everyone, it was because you cared for everyone.

That night among the dolls, I realized exhaustion and relief knowing that Jacob was lost. His people were all with me. But before they were with me, he wanted to put them all out in a city he had never left. The dolls looked like a warning, but what they really were was a kind of faith. These scarecrows, these dummy-doll totemic props, meant that my neighbor believed that people he did not know and would never talk to still cared enough to be scared. Maybe on his own now, with not even a neighbor to see that he had water or a battery ready for the TV remote, Jacob would come to know how very wrong he was to ever believe this.