I never really liked toys that were meant for boys. Something about firetrucks and army men didn’t catch my eye. I wasn’t interested in their implied chaos and disaster even when I was too young to fully attribute the toys to their places in the world. My father would even try to drag me down to the local arcade to play Pac Man or Donkey Kong with him, but we’d always leave with him sputtering and unable to make eye contact with me. I’d pretend that he was mimicking the noises of that failing car engine rather than expressing his true disdain with my interests.
I really wanted to like army men and sports like a normal boy, I just couldn’t. Playing with army men required tedious preparatory work: you would have to decide on the conflict, the positioning of each troop and tank, playout the botched scouting missions. But it would always culminate in the same ending: there’d be shooting and yelling, spit flying from your flailing cheeks in sounds of gunfire, drowning out the helpless soldiers. The troops would smash into each other, occasionally jabbing your small fingers with their curved green weapons. While there would be heavy resistance and many lives lost, the good guys would always push through to victory. But at what cost? In their wake would be a bloody battlefield of capsized stagnant green men strewn across the shag carpet. You’d pretend the smoky haze lingering above your knelt body was leftover gunpowder and smoldering buildings. In reality, the fallen soldiers were just weak plastic, lifeless toys molded to a flat green base, and that gunpowder hanging in the air was just your father’s cigar drooping from his exhausted yellowing fingers. Mom would always tell me to catch it if I saw him falling asleep, and I did. She always said he was going to burn the house down one of these days.
But I knew there was a different reason I wasn’t interested in army men and firetrucks. No, mom, I didn’t just shy away from the army men and firetrucks because of the brutality of their nature. And no, dad, it wasn’t because mom was raising me to be a pussy.
It’s funny, from the time I was maybe twelve until just yesterday, I hadn’t given my childhood habits a second thought. In fact, I didn’t think about it much at all. When Olivia and I first started dating, she’d often push me about my childhood. She’d ask what movies I watched, what my parents were like, who my friends were, what I played with. But each time, I’d skip around the question and jeer her until she gave up in either laughter or frustration. We’re married now, but I still haven’t told her why I refused to answer her curiosities with such vehemence. And until yesterday, I didn’t know why.
But when I sat there in my velvet cushion in our dimly lit local theater and my sweating white-knuckled hand death-clamped around my worried wife’s fingers, it began to come back to me. The performance we were watching was nothing to be afraid of. It was quite sweet actually. It was about a man who travelled across the English countryside looking for his pen-pal lover who’d recently stopped writing to him. He struggles to find her, and ends up riding his horse back home, defeated. But when he arrives, he finds his lover waiting at his house. She had stopped writing to him because she was busy riding across the countryside to find him. My wife cried, but my stomach churned and I sweat uncontrollably. And by the end of the play, I realized why I reacted so inappropriately: the play was acted out entirely by puppets.
When I looked into those beady glass eyes and vertically moving lips, I remembered something I had long repressed – the reason I hadn’t told Olivia about my childhood: Sammy.
Not liking the same toys the other boys liked didn’t only disappoint my father, it disappointed my potential friends. I had nothing in common with them, nothing to talk about. And the girls in my classes wouldn’t dare reach across the gendered isle and spend time with me. I was a bona fide misfit, so I had to turn to someone who didn’t judge me like my classmates. That someone was Sammy.
My Aunt Sue offered a pitiful smile when she handed me that box. I remember the look my father gave her: as if she was steamrolling the final threads of masculinity that were still left in me, grasping for life. My mother on the other hand was too thrilled to stop her hands from clapping into each other on their own. “Go on, open it,” she urged me.
Aunt Sue nodded, the folds of her neck accordioning into one another with each craning motion. Little seven-year-old me took a moment to respond to any of it, silently dumbfounded by the conflicting emotions from the adults around me over a box. What could be in that box that already caused such colliding angst?
The box was rectangular, thick, and quite heavy for my youthful arms. “What is it?” I called up to Aunt Sue.
Her hand waved towards the box as she continued nodding. “I’m not going to tell you,” she chuckled. “Just open it, sweetie.”
My father got up and left the room. My eyes followed him, but I gave up on trying to read his distress. I raised the box to my ear and shook it. I didn’t have many toys before this, but from the deep sounds of clattering plastic, I could tell whatever was inside was a behemoth of a toy. With my intrigue piqued, I dug my chewed-up finger nails deep between the box’s taped sides and pulled. “Careful,” my mom said. Her voice was muted by the sounds of the ripping box. By the time she had been able to get the full word out of her mouth, my jittery excited fingers had shredded the box beyond salvageability. Then I saw him and all at once my fingers paused in their collective havoc. Instead they refocused on what lie inside that box, and wrapped around his striped fabric waste. I lifted him from his cardboard abode and held him in front of me with both hands. One of the first things I noticed was his height. He had to be about 2 and a half feet tall, only about a foot shorter than me. But he was now the only one in my life shorter than myself, and without another word exchanged I felt immediately responsible for him. It was as if my irresponsible childhood time had suddenly been stripped away from me. I needed to give all my time to my new friend. I didn’t want him to be as lonely as me. He looked back at me like a dog awaiting his owner’s command with those near-human blue eyes. His face looked younger than his height suggested, and he sported a black and white striped button-up outfit, as if he was a prisoner.
I can’t remember if I even said “thank you” to Aunt Sue before scurrying away to my room with Sammy wrapped tightly under my arm. Whether I said it or not, I’m sure she understood my reaction, or my mother explained it to her. I hadn’t ever been that excited about receiving a toy. But I knew when I saw Sammy he was…different.
At first, my new friend was perfect for me. He could be everything I was missing in my childhood. He was a toy I could be passionate about and he could fulfill whatever “delicate” needs my mother thought I had, but most importantly he could be my friend. I’d spend hours in my room with Sammy. I’d tell him about my day at school and about the mean kids who would pick on me and giggle whenever the teacher wasn’t looking. I’d even tell him about the strange ways my father behaved and how little he wanted Sammy around. For a while, Sammy would say nothing. He just stared back at me with those glassy blue eyes beneath his lush eyelashes, sunk deep in that smooth, round baby head. At first, that’s all he needed to be for me: a good listener. And that’s all he was. “I love you, Sammy,” I told him.
But soon, I wanted more. It wasn’t enough for him to sit on the floor, slouched against the wall and aloofly staring back at me. As he listened more to me, I tried to think what I could do for him. He was my responsibility, after all. I couldn’t quite explain it, but he seemed sad to sit on the floor. One day, I decided to sneak into my father’s study and take the ornate wooden chair he never sat in. It looked older than him. I couldn’t quite pick it up, so I dragged it down the hall towards my bedroom. Once I finally reached the room, I picked up Sammy off the floor, and sat him in that elaborate seat. It was no less than he deserved: a seat for a king. The chair wasn’t in my room for more than a minute before my mom’s feet came slapping up the stairs. “Timmy,” she cried. “Timmy what are you doing up here.”
I sat on the edge of my bed with my chin in both hands, eyes fixed on Sammy. I could tell he appreciated my efforts. He loved his new chair. Just the way he was sat in it looked more perky, more alive. I couldn’t help but smile at him, with my eyes locked to his.
“Timmy,” my mother gasped as she rounded the corner. I felt her anger boiling over into her voice, but I felt Sammy’s delight even more. “Your father is going to kill you. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Look, there’s scratch marks all over the floor.” It was true, I’d notice the chair’s legs had handily dinged up the floor on the way over, but I didn’t care. Anything for Sammy. “Timmy, answer me.”
I didn’t break eye contact with Sammy, but finally answered her. My voice came out monotone, devoid of any reaction to my mother’s fretting. “Sammy needed a place to sit.”
“He’s a doll, Timmy. Sit him down on the floor.”
“No,” I growled back.
At this point my mother stormed her way into the room and grabbed Sammy by the shirt, then chucked him at me. Sammy’s head clattered into mine. I grabbed at my head and cried out. “Ow.”
My mother’s eyes rounded with her mouth. I could tell she didn’t mean to strike me with Sammy, but I still couldn’t forgive her so quickly for taking Sammy’s chair away from him – neither could Sammy.
She grabbed the arms of the wooden chair and leaned it against her body as she carried it out of the room back towards my father’s study.
Once I was done rubbing the bump on my head, I picked up Sammy. I noticed the top button on his shirt had popped off. I spent at least ten minutes scouring the room for it, but to no avail. I bet it was lodged in the cushion of that wooden chair, but I didn’t dare go back into my father’s study. Instead I panicked, thinking of all the ways I might be able to replace that button. I frantically stood from the bed and ran towards the closet, forgetting all about the throbbing wound on my forehead. I had a collection of three button-up shirts when I was seven: two that I wore to church on alternating weeks, and one that cousin Michael had passed down to me. He gave that shirt to me almost two years ago now and I never even thought of wearing it. It was pink, and I hated pink. I tore the top button off that pink shirt and yanked open my desk drawer to grab a roll of tape. I ripped a piece of tape off, then stuck the button to Sammy’s shirt the best I could. The tape didn’t fasten to Sammy’s striped shirt as well as I hoped and fell back to the floor. My head whirled it a panic. I could feel Sammy’s pain growing, his anger. I had 3 button-up shirts but Sammy just had one. It was all he had. I tried with another piece of tape, but the result was the same. The button just fell back to the floor and I felt Sammy’s emotions boil further.
Eventually I gave up, not having the skillset to fasten the button to his shirt. In sobbing defeat, I stood in the doorway of the living room with Sammy in one hand and the mismatched button in the other. Mom sewed it together and apologized for throwing Sammy at my head. I said it was okay, and I knew Sammy forgave her too, at least this time. When she gave Sammy back to me with his shirt repaired and good as new, I ran my fingers over the button. Even though I hadn’t attached it myself, I felt a sense of pride. I had used something that was mine to repair something that was his. In a sense, I gave a piece of myself to him. When I took Sammy back to my room, I told him something my mom would tell Aunt Sue whenever she came over: “Mi casa es tu casa”. It means everything I own is his as well. Sammy didn’t speak Spanish, but he knew what I meant.
A few nights later, I had trouble sleeping. I laid in bed trying my best to fool my body into sleeping but the noise was too much. Every time I looked away, there would be jumping and laughing, drawers opening and closing. “It’s bedtime, Sammy, please. I have school tomorrow.” But he wouldn’t listen. He continued on and on until my bedroom door swung open and the lights flicked on. The next thing I knew, he was snuggled up against my side under the covers. “Would you keep it down in here,” my father bellowed. But he stopped short on his last syllable when he saw me tucked neatly under the covers. I didn’t say anything, pretending to be asleep. He lingered for a moment, looking under the bed and behind the dresser to see if an animal had snuck in. But I knew it wasn’t an animal. After he left, I whispered, “Bad Sammy.” But he just giggled again.
About a week later at the otherwise silent dinner table, I pushed my loose front tooth with my tongue like a swing set while sliding my food towards the sides of the plate with my fork. I don’t know if it truly ever fooled mom and dad, but I was trying to make it seem like I ate more than I actually did. Mom must have seen my tongue smacking against the inside of my top lip. “Loose tooth?” she asked.
I nodded without stopping my wiggling.
“I’ll pull it out,” my father said.
I shook my head. “No,” I yipped. When my lips popped open, the tool fell and clanged against my plate, bouncing squarely onto a chicken nugget.
Mom giggled and dad offered a rare smile. “Make sure to put it under your pillow tonight for the tooth fairy,” mom said while coyly eyeing dad.
And so I did, but the tooth fairy isn’t the one who got the tooth. As I tried my hardest to fall asleep, I felt Sammy trying to tell me something. It was a similar feeling of unquenchable angst I got when he lost his button, but this time it was much worse. Sammy needed something new. And if I didn’t give it to him, I was going to feel his hunger ensue as if it was my own. I flicked the lights on and sat upright in bed, holding Sammy by the waist in both hands. For a moment we sat staring at each other. “What is it, Sammy?” I grumbled softly. He didn’t say what he wanted that time, but I could feel it, because his wants were mine, and mine were his.
I slipped one hand under the pillow and grabbed the loose tooth. It had a red blood stain across the root, but was mostly white otherwise. The tooth was so small, even for me, I thought. But it was perfect for someone about a foot shorter than me, someone like Sammy.
I reached into my bedside drawer for a pen, then lined it with surgical precision right where Sammy’s mouth would split if it weren’t welded shut. I jabbed the pen between his lips. The plastic didn’t originally break. Sammy whined and moaned. “I know, Sammy, just a little more.” I stabbed again, but the plastic still didn’t split. Timmy. “Just a little more, I’m sorry.” And on the third time I jabbed the pen into his ink-splotched lips, the pen broke through his skin. I wiggled the pen back and forth in the new hole to make the opening slightly larger. I then picked up the tooth once more and dropped it in the new opening, listening to it bounce inside his hollow body. “Better?” I asked. And it was better. Sammy’s longing had subsided and so had my own. What I said was still true. Me diente es tu diente.
In the morning, mom came into my room before school, a worried look plastered on her lips. “The tooth fairy told me she didn’t find your tooth last night, and you know what that means. If she doesn’t get the tooth, she can’t give you any money. Timmy, what did you do with your tooth?”
I didn’t say anything at first, and instead meekly looked away from her, holding Sammy close to my chest.
I looked down at Sammy and his blue smudged lips. “Sammy needed it.”
“Sammy? Honey he’s a doll.”
There it was again. He’s a ‘doll’. I knew she wouldn’t believe me, no matter what I said, so I raised Sammy from the bed and shook him in front of her. The tooth rattled inside his body and my mother gasped. When dad heard about the fate of the tooth, he argued with mom. He said Sammy has to go. He said I had a ‘creepy obsession’ with that thing. “We can’t just keep indulging that kid’s fantasies, Martha. He needs discipline. He needs to act like a real man.”
I can’t say I didn’t try – I really did – but Sammy wasn’t ready to forgive this time.
I remember that night so clearly. Dad rocked asleep in his Lazy Boy recliner with a burning cigar in hand like usual, while mother sewed her friend Dianne’s newborn boy a set of mittens. She’d ran out of string about halfway through, so the originally blue mittens were finished off with a yellow base. Wheel of Fortune lightly played from the television, and on the opposite side of the room was the smoldering fireplace, giving off just enough heat to counteract the winter storm outside. School the next day had already been cancelled since we were expecting almost two feet of snow. I laid on my stomach on the floor behind dad’s chair, staring into Sammy’s eyes, and we conversed with each other in our heads. He was glad I’d be home tomorrow. He got lonely when I went to school all day. Sammy had gotten much more talkative since I gave him my tooth. The wind howled outside and creaked the wooden-paneled walls of the living room. It was so loud that I only faintly caught the ticking of the wheel when someone spun it on the tube. Tonight’s the night. I need revenge. I shook my head, but Sammy wouldn’t listen.
A contestant on the television yelped. I looked up briefly to see her tightly wrapping her arms around Chuck Woolery’s tan suit, tears streaming from her beaming face. A red convertible rolled out onto stage, glinting and shimmering in the stage lights. As I said, I didn’t like the same things the other boys liked, but something about that car’s glimmering steel body was objectively beautiful. As it rolled to a stop, the woman released Chuck and ran over to the car, somehow without bending her knees. Tonight’s the night, Timmy. I shook my head again, but I knew this wasn’t a battle I’d win. The more Sammy pleaded the more I relented: it had to be done.
When my mother dosed off on the couch, one of her knitting needles flopped against the off-white shag carpet, unravelling a portion of the unfinished mitten and escorting it to the floor. My father’s snoring began and I watched his grip on that cigar loosen. It was my duty to make sure it didn’t fall. But what if it did? Tonight’s the night, Timmy. Do it for old Sammy.
“Sammy please,” I whispered, bringing myself to the verge of tears. My father snorted louder and sprung up, half awake, as if he had just caught himself from a devastating fall. In another few moments he was drifting off again. The cigar swung again like my loose tooth had, wiggling itself free from his hand. It wants to fall, Timmy. It needs to. Just don’t pick it up. Promise me, okay Timmy?
I felt my eyes harden and dry as the smoke filled my pupils. It felt as if they turned to glass. My lips welded shut and skin felt dry as plastic. My arms and legs grew stiff. I wasn’t sure in that moment if they’d move if I wanted them to.
The cigar inched its way once more from my father’s index finger and it was finally free. It slipped down the remainder of his fingers and smacked face down into the carpet before falling to its side. To my brief relief, nothing happened immediately. I asked Sammy if I could pick it up now, but he said no. He said he wouldn’t forgive me, and in that moment, I knew just what an angry Sammy might look like.
The cigar’s embers breathed in and out on their own, emitting less light with each heave around the charred tip. Then, an ember dashed from the cigar’s weakened body and nestled itself in the shag carpet. I didn’t flinch. I didn’t even inch back to get away. A youthful glow rose up from where the ember had fallen and acrobatically jumped to an adjacent hair of the carpet. From there, the two friends drove down the road and made a left up the arm of dad’s chair once they’d amassed enough support. They cackled and danced and wove their way into each fiber of that old chair. Yay, Timmy, yay. This is fun! That flamboyant Congo line had stretched all the way from the arm of the chair down towards the television set with the spinning wheel. They saw my mother’s mittens on the floor and raced across the room to investigate. Before I knew it, they were everywhere. The room grew hot and the friction of their sizzling festivities replaced the room’s clean air with a hazy cloud. I still didn’t move. Yes Timmy, yes. This is fun!
They danced their way towards my arm, and just then mother sprung from the couch. “Oh my god, Greg – Tim – Greg, wake up. Greg, there’s a fire.” She grabbed my arm and stood me off the ground.
Leave him. It’s okay, just leave him. “Leave him mommy,” I repeated.
She gave me the most terrified look I’d ever seen on her face, as if I’d murdered a litter of puppies.
My father woke up and sniffed the air before rolling up out of his chair. When he stood, he realized his sleeve had caught fire. He flailed and moaned in a sort of scream before slapping the burning sleeve into his chair a few times, eventually putting it out. We ran from the scorching living room, and the television dinged and rang with another winning contestant, and the wintry snow cascaded and howled against the window, and Sammy asked me if we could stay behind and watch the lightshow.
The firefighters were able to get there fast enough to stop the whole house from going up in flames, but my parents took Sammy away from me after that night. I pleaded and cried for them to let me keep him, but in the end, it was probably for the best. On that last day I spent with Sammy, his longings and pain rang sharp once more. He wanted my eyes next. Mis ojos son tus ojos. I haven’t felt his hunger in a long time, but as I write this story and recall my time with Sammy, my stomach begins to growl.