Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Tiny Roundhead


The house has no roof. It looks small and lonely, with the tiny ball-headed people lying on their backs in a row next to it. There are no doors, no windows, only square openings in the light wood, the edges smooth and rounded, almost soft to the touch.


Dr. Edith is nearly as small as a child. Sari is crouched next to the toy house and the doctor has told her, in a voice that is supposed to be friendly, that she may play with it, and with the roundhead people. But Sari understands that the invitation is a command: she must play. She reaches out a finger and touches the inside edge of a “window” again. Smooth. Cool.


Dr. Edith’s room is a strange combination of office and home. There is a green rug on the floor, a rocking chair. A low bookshelf against one wall. Toys. Two big floppy-headed cloth dolls with yarn hair hang by the backs of their necks under the high window. They look like they are dead, or sleeping a scary sleep. Perhaps they are a warning—children who do not play the way they are supposed to will be hung on the wall, put to sleep. Sari looks away.


A bar of sunlight crosses the floor, bends up the side of the roofless house. Sari traces the ray along the green rug, her finger bumping over the nubs where the fibers go under and over each other. She can see that there is dust in the tiny valleys between nubs. The doctor probably never sits here on the floor, so she has not seen this dust. Sari follows the edge of the sunlight all the way up to the corner of the little house, and then she brings her hand up to her nose and smells her palm. Old cloth and dust. She touches her tongue to the inside of her hand. She tastes a vague sourness and grit.


The voice of the doctor startles her. Go ahead, she says to Sari, gesturing toward the toys, and Sari’s heart pumps. She doesn’t know what game the doctor wants her to play, but Mummy is sitting outside in the waiting room; Sari wants to be good. She tries to think of what to do. She picks up the roundheaded people and puts them in the house. Standing up, all in a row. One, two, three, four. A knot of tension climbs up Sari’s neck and ties itself in her jaw. She clenches and twitches her head and shoulders to let it out. She knows this is why she is here.


She can feel that Dr. Edith is watching her. She looks around. There are some colored blocks near the big hung-up dolls, and some little cars and trucks. Sari would rather play with those. She looks up and sees the doctor’s little nut face. Dr. Edith wants her to play with the house. Sari had gone directly over to the little trucks when she came into the room, but the doctor had taken her by the hand and led her away.


There is a wooden bench in the house, and a wooden table. A wooden bed. Sari thinks the whole thing is silly. No one would live in this house. It has no roof. And no TV. But the lady is still watching her, so she picks up the roundheads, one by one. She sits the mummy roundhead and the daddy roundhead on the bench. One ball-headed child in one room, the other in the other. She sits back on her heels and peeks up at the little woman. Dr. Edith. She’s not a doctor like Sari’s regular doctor, Dr. Fitterman, who sent them here. Dr. Fitterman is an old woman who, Sari has been told, lives on a farm with peacocks. That is interesting, although it doesn’t make the rectal thermometer any easier to take.


Dr. Edith smiles at Sari. Sari can see that she means to be encouraging, but she stands there so formally, hands clasped before her, that Sari feels stiff too. Dr. Edith asks her why she has put the dolls in separate rooms. This is the mummy and the daddy, Sari says, pointing. This is the kid, she says, and the other kid. Sari can tell the little doctor is waiting for more, expectation on her pouchy little face. Sari heaves a sigh. The kids have to go to sleep, she says. She is trying to think of what else to say. This, she points into an empty corner of one room, is the cat.


Okay, says Dr. Edith, I think we’ve done enough for today. She turns away, and Sari reaches into the house and picks up the mummy doll and the daddy doll. She smacks them together and then, standing, drops them into the house, where they bounce off the wooden bench and roll into the walls. She looks up to find Dr. Edith watching her. The little node of tension twists at the back of Sari’s neck, and she has to twitch her face and shoulders again to let it out. She tries to do it quickly but she knows Dr. Edith sees.


The waiting room here is like Dr. Fitterman’s waiting room, but smaller. Dr. Fitterman’s waiting room is big, with a big window looking at the parking lot. The waiting room here has no windows, but there are two doors leading further inside.


Behind the door on the left is Dr. Edith. Her rug, her desk, her toys. Behind the other one, Mummy told Sari, is Dr. Edith’s husband. He is a doctor, too. Like Dr. Edith, not like Dr. Fitterman. Sometimes while they are waiting in the waiting room, a grownup goes in or comes out of the husband’s door. But Sari never sees him. He is like a ghost that opens and closes doors.


Mummy is reading a magazine. Sari hears the sharp swip of each page turning. Sari can see Mummy’s black shoe slicing the air, bouncing. Mummy’s blue checkbook is sticking out of her purse. Mummy and Daddy had a fight in the car, about the checkbook. It is Sari’s fault they have to make a check for Dr. Edith, because Sari has her twitch.


The husband door opens, and Sari hears the low rumble of his voice. A woman goes in, leaving her and Mummy alone in the waiting room. Sari hopes she’ll be allowed to play with the cars and trucks today. She pulls her chin to one side while the tightness collects, then when it pops she shakes her head. Her shoulder jerks forward.


She has tried not to twitch, but the tic always climbs up her neck and nests there until it is ripe and bursts. She can’t help it. When Mummy took her to Dr. Fitterman, Sari was relieved that Dr. Fitterman could fix her. But she didn’t. Sari has something Dr. Fitterman couldn’t fix. Instead, she told Mummy, Sari should come see Dr. Edith. Sometimes Sari’s jaw and neck hurt from the constant clenching. She can’t really see how playing with the stupid wooden house will help.


Inside Dr. Edith’s office, the sunlight is stretched across the wall. Sari looks around, but the house with no roof is neatly tucked away in the corner next to the cars and trucks and the big hung-up dolls. Dr. Edith tells Sari that today they are going to do relaxation.


Sari lies down on the floor and closes her eyes. She can feel the over-and-under of the rug under her fingers. She remembers the sour taste of the dust. Sari hears the clicks as Dr. Edith puts a cassette in a tape recorder and presses the button. Dr. Edith intones. She asks Sari to tighten all the muscles in her toes. Her feet. Sari wishes she was playing with the ball-head dolls instead. She imagines the woman from the waiting room on the other side of the wall; she wonders what the adults get to play with. Dr. Edith says to tighten her ankles. Sari thinks about whether Dr. Edith’s husband is small and little, with a face like the front of a nut, like his wife. Dr. Edith tells Sari to tighten her legs. Her knees, her stomach. Sari hates this feeling. It’s like having the twitch in her whole body. This is worse than the twitch.


She thinks, if only she had another chance, she would do a better job of playing with the roundheaded dolls. She would pretend more. Dr. Edith says, clench your hands. Your arms. She would make them go shopping, and have supper; she would make the kid dolls eat corn. Dr. Edith says, tighten your neck. Your face. Sari would make the Daddy doll spank the kid doll. And the other kid. Tighten your scalp.


Sari lies rigid, contracted into a painful, solid plank. She is trying as hard as she can. She is almost crying. Dr. Edith says, okay. Now you can let go. Sari releases her muscles. Tears come out; she squeezes her eyes even more closed so Dr. Edith won’t see. She smells the old-cloth smell of the rug and imagines the sparkles of dust floating above her in the sunlight. You can get up now, says Dr. Edith, and Sari hears the click of the tape recorder button.


Daddy plugs the tape recorder in and puts it on the shelf next to Sari’s bed. He shows her the button to press to make it play, and the button to make it go back to the beginning for the next day. Sari is relieved. Now that Dr. Edith recorded her relaxation exercise, she doesn’t have to go back. Mummy won’t have to give the little doctor any more checks.


Daddy has turned the light off, and Sari lies alone in the dark. She is supposed to do her exercise before she goes to sleep. She presses the button and closes her eyes. The exercise hurts, but it is supposed to be good for her. It will cure her tic.


Dr. Edith’s little voice comes on. She asks Sari to tighten all the muscles in her toes. Her feet. Her ankles. Sari hears an echo of voices. She feels the bedsheet under her fingers. Cold and smooth, not like the rug in the office. Dr. Edith tells her to tighten her legs. Her knees. A sound like scary wind rises behind Dr. Edith’s nasal intoning. Tighten your stomach, Dr. Edith chants slowly, and Sari hears wailing. Sobbing. The low rumble of a man’s voice, a woman’s anguished crying. Dr. Edith’s voice calmly says, clench your hands. Sari’s fingers scrape the sheets. Her chest is tight. She pictures the inside of Dr. Edith’s office and sees the wall with the bookshelf. Dr. Edith’s husband on the other side, with the woman from the waiting room. The wails are getting louder, the rumble voice more urgent. Sari is all clenched up without even having to be told to do it. Her throat hurts, her face is crumpled, hot. There is a bad ghost inside the tape recorder, as if wild pain, malevolent, escaped from the husband’s office and slipped into the machine. Now it rides Dr. Edith’s voice into Sari’s body, coiling itself around her muscles so they hurt, knotted in her. She tries to shake her head, to jerk her jaw and shoulders and let it out, but there is hardly any release. She tries again.


Her spine is wound too tight, even her little fists ache. She opens her hands wide. The woman’s voice is begging help me, please help me and the man’s voice is too low for Sari to hear what he is saying but it rumbles on like water. She tries to remember the feeling of smooth, cool wood but all that comes to mind is wanting to throw those ball-heads down and crash them. Then Dr. Edith’s voice, over the sobbing and the screaming, says now you can let go, and Sari sits up and presses the stop button so hard it sticks in the down position. Then she has the biggest tic she’s ever had. The right side of her jaw still hurts when she wakes up the next day.


Sari gets dressed. She is putting her socks on. She feels the little ball of tension rise through her spine to her neck and hover there; she concentrates until it ripens and explodes, her head and shoulders jerking slightly against each other. She looks down again. Folding the top of her white cotton anklet is hard, she has to pay attention to do it neatly. After the summer, when she gets to begin school, she’ll have to get dressed all by herself every day. She hears the creak of the floor and looks up to find Mummy in the doorway, watching her. How was your relaxation last night? Mummy asks. Sari thinks of Mummy’s checkbook, its blue vinyl cover sticking out of Mummy’s purse in the waiting room. The sobbing woman sitting, face drawn, waiting for the husband door to open. The wild, anguished cries tighten painfully in Sari’s neck. She looks up. Fine, she says. The tic bursts. She turns her head in the same moment to disguise it, reaching for her shoes.



Elise Moser has published about thirty short stories. She is the author of a novel, Because I Have Loved and Hidden It, and a YA novel, Lily and Taylor. She has also edited anthologies, including the recent Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec. She writes and edits in Montreal, Quebec and Sauk City, Wisconsin, and is on the board of PEN Canada.