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October 21, 2020

The Widow’s Interchangeable Heads

Joshua Jones

My father’s wife sits next to me, her back rigid, her eyes unblinking. I’d dressed her in one of her favorite dresses, the black one trimmed in lace, and the velvet choker she always wears. Also, a black hat I’d found at Goodwill. Goodwill didn’t sell veils, at least not black ones.

There’s no other family. My aunt said she wouldn’t come, not if she was going to be there. “But it’s what Dad would’ve wanted,” I told her. She said I was sick. Said I was making a farce of it.

The only other ones here are Gene, my father’s old sales partner, and the funeral director, a small, waxy-faced man who keeps clasping and unclasping his hands. He asks if anyone wants to say a few words. Nobody does. The director clears his throat and begins reading the eulogy he’d prepared, a kind of Mad Libs recitation of Dad’s life. He keeps glancing at my father’s wife, at her placid face that looks stoic beneath her hat but that the catalogues describe as pouty.

Gene leans over and whispers, “She looks good. Just like your mother.”

I nod although I don’t much remember my mom. All my memories are of Renee II: her posed on the sofa between me and Dad; her propped at the kitchen table while Dad carved a Cornish hen for Thanksgiving; her lounging by the pool while I helped Dad with the charcoal grill. He loved to barbecue. Loved having neighbors and colleagues over. He’d have Renee greet the guests with her broad-smile face, the one with the perfectly sculpted and too-white teeth. Not that we had many guests. Those that did come joked that Dad was such a card and winked at me as if I was in on it.

Now Gene says, “What are you going to do with her?”

“What do you mean?” I say, too loudly. The director shoots me a dirty look, then goes back to his monotone reading. When he gets to the part about my father being survived by his loving wife, he falters and looks up from his page at Renee II. She stares straight ahead, her gaze fixed on my father’s urn.

“We could buy her off you,” Gene whispers. “Not that we could offer much. Not many people go for the older models. Don’t want to mess with all the different heads—you still have them, right?”

I nod. They’re in my father’s closet, arrayed across a custom-built shelf, all except one, the one Dad never talked about. I found it hidden beneath his bed that morning when looking for a pair of shoes for Renee. I bent down, and there it was, rolled onto its cheek and staring up at me, the mouth shaped in a perfect O. I picked it up carefully, holding it just behind the ears. The mouth stayed open and might’ve looked brand new except the silicon lips sagged at the edges. From inside its dark hollow came a faint scent of soap and stale sweat. I placed the head on the pillow next to where Dad was found and tried to close the eyes, but they were glued open. The newer ones have lids that shut and fully articulated jaws, though when their mouths close, their smiles never look quite right. “You don’t get them for their smiles,” Gene once told me. I said that my father had, but Gene only laughed.

“We could refurbish her,” Gene says. “Find a buyer who’s into the vintage experience. Who knows, maybe this guy,” he says with a nod toward the director, whose eyes keep flicking over Renee II’s stockinged legs.

“No. Dad wouldn’t want that.”

“Understood. Let me know if you change your mind.” Gene stands and claps me on the shoulder then leaves, slipping the director his card on the way out. The director studies the card, turns it over and over before giving me a weak smile. “I’ll give you some time,” he says on his way out the door.

I take Renee’s hand. It’s softer than I remembered. She doesn’t stir but keeps looking at Dad’s urn, her glassy eyes almost wet. “Don’t cry,” I say. “We’ll take you home. Change you out of those things.” I’ll put her in one of her half-smile heads, one that shows a sliver of teeth, the one that looks like the photo of my mom. “Everything will be all right,” I say and squeeze her hand. I feel the silicone give. I wait for her to squeeze mine back.