Alena safety-pinned a label on the man’s lapel, and read it to her bear, Gerald: “This man refuses to open his eyes.” She skipped the bear across the attic floorboards and danced him to the wool scarf that served as the man’s neck. “Gerald the Bear says ‘Grr!’, Mister! You better wake up or I’m gonna fold you back in the box.”
The box was one of a baker’s dozen, stacked and soft with age and dust, leaning beside the table where Alena’s mother once kept her quilting materials. “Men” the box was named, printed in black marker dimmed to blue. Alena’s men were assembled from scraps, lined on their backs like an array of playing cards, their hats, caps, and yarn hair close against the angle where the roof line sloped into the floor. If they wanted to sit up, they would bump their heads, and Alena often warned them not to move as she adjusted their clothes, and their make-believe attitudes.
Gerald turned to her from the stubborn, closed-lidded man; threads hung from the teddy bear's cross-stitched mouth like droplets of blood.
“Good bear,” she said, and held Gerald to each face in turn to show them what vicious behavior he was capable of.
The man at the left consisted of work clothes—Dickies overalls, White Mule gloves, and for his head she’d scooped and patterned a round button face made of buttons itself, grimacing with a row of silver snaps and other glinting bits of toothy remnants. He had no hair—her dad had been bald—and his eyes were made of spools, bugging out in anger. She ignored him, no matter how much Gerald growled. Dad was best left alone.
Next she’d smoothed out a pair of torn Levi’s and a shirt that changed with her mood. Yesterday it had been a muscle shirt, today was dressier, a blue t-shirt with stained armpits, covered with a vest from a suit she couldn’t find. His head was empty except for his eyes she’d built of heaps of glitter, and his hair was long and straight, combed from brown yarn. He was a rock and roll rebel boy, her high school sweetheart someday. She called him Rascal, and he was the only one that Gerald approved of.
Gross John lay next to Rascal. A boring brown suit and hat, folded in half from brim to toe, as though he’d rolled over and gone to sleep. Gross John was her husband, who never came home from work, and it didn't matter anyway, because next to him lay her secret boyfriend, Raul. He didn’t have any clothes at all, just a pair of underwear she’d wickedly stuffed with socks, and eyes that winked and dazzled her: deep blue Pente orbs, stolen from the game downstairs.
And now, the difficult one. The one who refused, flat refused, to open his eyes!
“Maybe he’s asleep,” she whispered to Gerald.
In his bear voice he replied that maybe she hadn’t met him yet, and his eyes would open then.
The attic door slammed open against the bottom of the stairwell, and Alena almost bumped her head scooping up the men, bundling Gerald into the box with them, crying, “Who’s there?” before the trespasser could set foot on the stairs. “Stay there, stay there! I’m coming down in a minute!”
“It’s way past dinner time,” a boy’s voice complained. “We’re starving.”
“Just one more little minute, honey. Let me tidy up.”
“Please, Mom. The baby’s hungry; I can’t make him shut up, and Dad’s not home yet.”
Gerald rustled in the box and muttered at the mention of Alena’s husband. She stroked the box marked “Men” and shushed the bear to silence.
“I’m coming,” she said, and stood to compose herself, whispering “Goodnight, darlings” to the empty spaces her men of rags had filled.