“This is not acceptable behavior,” she said as the cat pawed at the carefully painted skeleton. “That isn’t yours,” she said as the cat knocked the skeleton from the shelf, sending it skittering across the floor. She picked it up and put it back, shooing the cat away, knowing it was a game, knowing that playing the game once meant playing the game again.
His miniatures were part of a game he never played. Skeletons, goblins, witches, sirens, dragons. He bought the kits, built the models, painted them. He placed them on a crowded shelf, organized and reorganized by size, color, and assigned skill. “I’m sure the game is fun,” he said, “but it isn’t what interests me.”
Her miniatures were not part of anything at all. Her miniatures were made from garbage. Flowerpots made from bottle caps. Papasans made from egg cartons. The inside of the china cabinet looked suspiciously like an Ikea showroom with the occasional goblin resident. She liked to hide his miniatures among her own to see how long it would take him to notice.
It was a hobby that they’d picked up together to cope with their separate conditions: his unemployment, her disinterest in having a child, his stagnant scriptwriting career, her dried up poems. These were large conditions that they filled with tiny replicas and distortions of something familiar until, one day, he came home with a 1967 Camaro. Then, he started spending his time in the carport, rather than at the card table that had taken up permanent residence in the living room.
“It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something real,” he’d said.
“Aren’t your miniatures real?” she’d asked.
“I need to do something with my hands,” he’d said, and she’d looked down at her own hands, wondering what she had used to weave throw rugs out of bread ties.
The miniatures were not seen as playthings. They were meant to be staged, meant to be observed in conjunction with one another, like ever-shifting art installments. The next time the cat knocked a one-inch-tall goblin to the floor, she said nothing. She watched, curious, as the cat nudged the goblin this way, then that, finally picking it up between her teeth and trotting off with it. There was a scuffling down the hall, and the woman imagined that the cat was adding the goblin to a collection of hidden flotsam in the closet. This, she decided, would be the turning point.
She gathered her materials, the empty boxes and plastic newspaper bags and popsicle sticks and glue guns, and took them out to the covered patio. She wanted to understand the need to work on something bigger. She wanted to know if “bigger” meant “real.” She built a dollhouse that stood five feet tall, its pitched roof coming to her nose. She divided the house into little rooms, sitting rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms and a kitchen, and filled it with everything she’d ever made.
He asked, once, what she was doing. He didn’t listen to the answer, ducking his head beneath the hood of the Camaro, his body a severed thing, feet on the ground, legs, hips, torso and then nothing, the rest obscured by the car. It was as if he was building himself into the car, as if he was transforming into one of his creations: hellish, otherworldly.
The neighborhood kids caught wind quickly, showing up after school in groups of three and four, working like teams of interior decorators, moving this into that room and that into this room. She had made no dolls and so the only thing to do with the house was reorganize.
Her husband watched from the guts of the Camaro as she introduced occupants to the house: first a witch with a tall staff, her floating hair indicating a sort of electric power; next, a skeleton brandishing a sword at an angle that suggested he was aiming for the knees; finally, a goblin only a third of the size of the rest, crouched and grinning. The children assigned the goblin the role of a pet. It barked like a dog and meowed like a cat and neighed like a horse and all of these seemed like logical enough choices to her.
“Those aren’t yours,” he said one night over dinner.
“What aren’t?” she asked.
“Well,” she said. “You’ll need to have the same conversation with the cat.”
After a pause, she asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“The car, specifically.”
“I’m not sure if enjoying is the right word,” he said. “But at least the car can take me somewhere.”
After dinner, she went outside and retrieved the three small figures and set them on the coffee table next to his evening tea.
She slept through the night but not without horribly vivid dreams. In each dream, he was gone: gone from the house, gone from her life, gone from the earth. Divorced, missing, dead. In each dream, she was left with all of his miniatures and his Camaro, the latter tucked away under a tarp in the carport, not quite fixed yet, never quite fixed yet. She hated the car for taking him away. She loved the car for being the thing that absorbed his attention. She heard him say again, I’m not sure if enjoying is the right word, and asked, Then what is? She woke up in the morning and waited for him to slip out the side door before calling the travel agent.
“We have great deals on cruises right now,” the agent said. “Alaska? Jamaica? How about flights to Europe.”
“Gatlinburg,” she said. “I want to take the train and then I want to rent a car and I want four nights in a nice hotel and tickets to the Museum of Miniatures.”
They boarded the train to Nashville and rode through flat countryside for hours, staring out the window and pointing to cows, horses, sheep, wheat fields. She knew he saw the days away as lost time. Winter was coming and he wanted to be done with the Camaro before his hard work was buried under sheets of ice.
He did perk up in the hall of gaming miniatures, pointing to models that were familiar to him, to the vintage kits he’d tried and failed to track down online. He stood patiently by her side as she took notes in the room of dollhouse furniture, nodding as she suggested ways to recreate Victorian wardrobes and tea sets using salvaged bits from the recycling bin.
“So,” she said, taking her seat in the museum’s café. “What did you think?”
He glanced at her and smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
“What?” she asked.
“Well,” he said. “I guess I think that maybe I’m done with all of that.”
Several moments of silence slipped between them and finally, she said, “I don’t understand.”
He explained carefully that miniatures were never his life’s passion, that they were merely a placeholder for something else.
“For the car?” she asked. “I never even knew you cared about cars.”
“No, not for the car. I suppose the car is a placeholder, too.”
“A placeholder for what, then?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, exactly,” he said. “For something I don’t have the courage to do, maybe. Something important. Some people spend their lives doing great things. I’ve spent my life idling.”
She considered this, considered the word idling, thought about idle hands, about idling cars, about the devil and exhaust fumes.
“If you don’t care anymore,” she said, trying not to sound wounded, “then why does it matter if the kids play with your miniatures?”
“Because so far, they’re the only thing I have to show,” he said.
She waited until they’d gone back to the hotel and shut off the light to cry, certain that she was crying only for him.
When the children asked about dolls, she brought her supplies outside and helped them to make their own. The parents of the neighborhood began to rely on her as a sort of afterschool instructor, praising her for her patience, wondering amongst themselves why she’d never become a mother. She took pride in her work, speaking to seven-year-olds as though they were tapping into one of life’s mysteries. She did not participate in assigning traits to the dolls or trailing them through the various rooms of their home. She was interested only in their creation.
When the first snow did land, blanketing everything in impenetrable and merciless white, he helped her to carry the dollhouse into the shelter of the carport, covering it with a plastic tarp. Obscured under the same shade of blue, she thought, there was no way of knowing whether or not the car and the dollhouse were mirrors of one another or two completely different things.
She was getting listless, finding herself more often than not wandering away from the card table and into the other corners of the house, looking and looking for something different. She longed for the spring, longed to put the dollhouse back on the porch, longed to teach her pupils how to create before unleashing them on what she now thought of almost exclusively as playthings. She knew she had him to thank, or to blame as it were, that she had been perfectly content making her miniatures and stowing them away until he’d moved their entire world out of doors.
“Do you think that I’m idling?” she asked him, her lap piled with books she was trying to find interesting.
“You said that you’ve spent your life idling. Do you think that I’m idling, too?”
He set down his crossword puzzle and took off the reading glasses he’d only recently started to require. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly, “that that is for me to decide.”
“Well, who decides, then?” she asked.
“You have to decide for yourself.”
For days, she kept score in her mind. It was resourceful. It was creative. The children enjoyed it. She enjoyed it. She wasn’t sure how to tally that one, wondering if her enjoyment made the whole thing more or less valid, wondering at herself for so readily discounting the value of her happiness.
“I’m not sure if I’m idling and I’m not sure if I care,” she finally announced. “What would I be doing instead?”
He picked up one of her latest pieces, one in a series of cookware, the tiny lids constructed from layers and layers of hardened plastic wrap.
“This is good work,” he said. “You should be proud.”
“I am proud,” she said. “Are you proud of your Camaro?”
“I guess so,” he said.
When the winter cracked open and the spring pushed through, the two resumed their work outside. He would pause what he was doing to bring out armfuls of juice boxes for the kids. She would pause what she was doing to watch him tinkering with his car, cursing quietly under his breath. He spent more and more time watching over the progress on her side of the yard, started referring to the car as that thing, as in, “That thing can wait.”
As a joke, she bought him a model 1967 Camaro. She told him he had to build it, that it went with the dollhouse. He spent two weeks working on it, recreating his own car’s paint job and dents and dings precisely.
The car opened up the possibility of leaving the dollhouse, of new spaces to visit and fuss over, neighboring houses and shops and restaurants. The car necessitated a town, and she would need help building it. At the very least, he’d have to hold together the corners of cardboard buildings while the glue dried.
After the first week of expansions, he started selecting miniatures from his own collection to populate the town. He built scenes that could come to life with a glance: witches ordering iced coffees, skeletons selling movie tickets, goblins refiling library books. She thought once or twice about teasing him over this change of heart but sensed that it was best not to let him in on it just yet. She would quietly count the days that the Camaro remained covered, quietly note the look of satisfaction that was smoothing out the furrow in his brow.
The tiny town became somewhat of a local legend. The parents came by more often to see what was new. The teenagers came by to take pictures of themselves. The occasional out-of-towner caught wind from someone at work or on their bowling league and came all that way just to find out for themselves what was happening. It was strange to share their property with the public but, with the exception of one overnight vandalism that led to an all-hands-on-deck revival, nothing bad or unusual came to pass.
By the time the newspaper reporter came, the town took up all of the front yard and parts of the side yard, too. Hanging shelves were drilled into the siding to support vertical vignettes: apartments, shopping malls, treehouses. A functional train track ran from one end to the other, transporting townspeople to their various destinations between the hours of 9 am and 6 pm. The newest installment was a waterpark: one flume ride, one water slide, and one wave pool, all of which were hooked up to the spigot.
“What do you call it?” the reporter asked. “I’ve heard it go by many things, but no one can seem to agree on a single name.”
They looked at each other. Neither had ever given the question much thought. The town had rolled out unplanned, expanded without consideration. It was just something to do until suddenly, it was something to see. They had never discussed how long they would keep working on it or when they would tear it all down. They just let it run.
“Idle Town,” she said.
The article ran in the Lifestyle section of the local paper, painting the two of them as eccentrics. She supposed they were and wondered if that’s what he had been running from. She framed the article and hung it on the carport, painted a sign that said, “Welcome to Idle Town,” and waited for the tarp to come off of the Camaro again. She suspected that it wouldn’t but that he wouldn’t get rid of it, either. She suspected that he needed the reminder that he could still take himself somewhere.
“Are you happy?” she asked him. They were making their rounds to shut off the electricity and water that ran through the town.
“Yes,” he answered.
“You’re sure?” she asked him.
“Yes. Are you?”
“I think,” she said, “that I always have been.”
She loved the moment when the lights went dark in Idle Town. It was as if all of its inhabitants chose to rest at the same time, as if they knew that there was nothing so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
The porch light was left on, just in case any late-nighters wanted to get a closer look. The only rule, if anyone chose to visit after hours, was to remain quiet, to avoid disturbing the homeowners. You could touch anything you wanted, move around the furniture, move around the townspeople. The homeowners trusted that you wouldn’t take anything, and it seemed that that kind of trust made people honest. It was a different world over here in Idle Town, arguably a better one. It was easy to get lost in it for hours, easy to wonder where all that time had gone or if it really mattered at all.
Molly Andrea-Ryan is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work can be found in trampset, Barren Magazine, Okay Donkey, and elsewhere.