Essay by Amelia Jane Larson
Photo by Tom Larson

Dug—D-U-G—has been sitting in the corners of our den for as long  as I can remember. Longer, in fact. He existed before I did; the small 1983 etched below his name in ancient ballpoint on the back of his neck is testament to this. His clothes have not been changed once in his twenty-six years of life; he still wears the same flannel, red  checkered shirt and little boy's blue jeans that swaddled him at the  culmination of his strange, incremental creation. In time immemorial  these clothes belonged to my older brother, long since a man.

Dug does not have hair; he has divot marks carved with a chisel and coated in tan paint. His stiff fingers never separate, his blue eyes do not blink, and his mouth, when not being manipulated up and down in crude jawing motions via the wooden rod running down his throat and  through the hole in his back, sits firm and unmoving in rigid  position, imbuing him with an expression of either ponderous serenity (closed), or perpetual, wild astonishment (open). Dug's head is  removable. Throughout my childhood, it was not uncommon to be walking  from the kitchen to the piano room and notice it lying on the floor, decapitated and surrounded by Duplos and Playskool cooking utensils, the body nowhere in sight. When he was only slightly younger than he is now, my nephew had a penchant for carrying Dug's head—almost the exact size of his own—with him from place to place, alternately  kissing its lips and slavering over it like a six pound wooden drumstick.

Dug is not alone in our den. He shares the room with an entire shelf strung with marionettes of all shapes and colors: the Indian princess with the golden disco ball crown, the four Mexican movie stars, the mop-headed old man with his pipe and spectacles, the wizard, the painter, the chimney sweep. As alluring as these other wooden play-people may sometimes appear, among them it is only Dug who can boast both liberty and good breeding. He is one of only two puppets  handmade by my father, and the only one able to live among us, not as a seldom-handled ornament dangling on tenuous strings, but as a sturdy, freestanding body of wooden limbs and rope joints. He is the size of a kindergartener. He has the durability of a crash test dummy.

Dug has seen a lifetime of nights and days pass in that small, overstuffed den, and in that time he has been the docile,  uncomplaining victim of a thousand shenanigans and an hundred thousand indignities. There were the countless home movie variety shows, in which his head was spun rapidly and repeatedly in circles to the tune of wild whooping noises from my father, performed for the maniacally giggling benefit of my sister, myself, and our now vastly outdated camcorder. There was the night that my best friend's older sister, while babysitting my cousin and I, challenged me in a game of Truth or Dare to French kiss Dug's dual-toothed wooden mouth—a dare I regrettably took. There was the evening, I cannot recall exactly how long ago, that one of my close and charmingly vulgar friends discovered that lewd pantomimes could be enacted with Dug's left hand, which is carved in a perpetually clenched fist. All of these humiliations Dug has borne year in and year out, without a single  word of protest. He must, in fact, rely solely on the comedic grunts and bad jokes of others in order to communicate anything at all, having no voice of his own to speak through. I wonder sometimes what  he would say to us if he had. He has spent twenty-six years as an ageless observer in the corner of that den, perched dutifully on the  ledge beside the bookcase.

I wonder, now, as I look at the furnishings filling my half of the dorm room with a kind of organized decorative chaos, if it is by coincidence or through a hitherto unrecognized subconscious desire that the colors I have chosen seem to be taken from Dug's palette. The furniture of the dorm I specifically requested is worn wood. Reds and browns are abundant. The pale blue couch might have been the blue of  his jeans once, in bygone years before it faded to its current watery gray. My desk is cluttered, alongside pictures of my family, with books, and items like pipes and coffee mugs that I would have stocked our bookshelf at home with, had it been up to me. Everywhere I turn, I  see corners that Dug could fit in, little square places for his limp legs to hang down. It makes me wonder if, when I have moved on from this place as I have moved on from the last one, and the one before that, I will do the same thing again. I wonder if I will continue to make imaginary seats for him, forever.

© Amelia Jane Larson, 2009