About five years ago, the boys and I visited Evanston, and you really can't visit Evanston properly unless you stop by Comix Revolution, the hip comic book store—and cool book shop, and trendy toy store—on Davis Street.
So we're visiting Comix Revolution, and the boys are selecting their comics, and my attention is drawn by a rack of Uglydolls, these homely stuffed creatures, horned and bug-eyed and snaggle-toothed, in shades of rust red and powder blue and lime green, created in 2002 by a young couple, David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim. The two had met at the Parsons School for Design, become friends, then Kim's parents pressed her to return home to South Korea in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. They exchanged letters, of course, and in one Horvath doodled a little cartoonish figure. Kim, a designer. liked the character, and sewed it into an actual plush plaything, then sent it to him. Horvath showed his girlfriend's creation to a friend who owned the Giant Robot novelty store in Los Angeles. He asked for 20, which Kim dutifully hand made. Thus a hugely successful toy company was born. The creatures have big flat faces and thousand-yard stares, their ancient gaze reminiscent of Babylonian
Particularly this one fellow, named "Big Toe," though he doesn't have any toes at all. I plucked him off the rack and regarded him, eye to eye, smiling. Just then, my older boy, about 12 at the time, drifted by and noticed. "Oh, so you like that one, eh dad?" he taunted. "Why don't you buy him, huh? Why don't you buy him for yourself?"
"I think I will," I said, calling his bluff, savoring my son's instant expression change from sneer to open-mouthed surprise. I took my purchase to the cash register, the boy following me, unbelieving. "I'll take this little guy," I said. Ten bucks—not bad.
"Do you want a bag?" the clerk asked.
"No," I announced, with a quick backwards glance. "I think I'll carry him with me." And I tucked him under my arm, his broad face peeking out at heart level, and we exited onto Davis Street together, one grinning, victorious dad, head high, stepping lively, almost marching, followed by two cringing lads, searching the faces of passersby for reaction, trying to fold themselves into little inconspicuous balls.
A joke like that is too delicious to just let drop. At home, I placed Big Toe atop a pillow on my bed, to the amusement of my wife, at first.
"My husband sleeps with a doll," she marveled.
"Not a doll," I corrected her. "An action figure. A Secret Agent Midnight Ninja Big Toe." The full-sized Big Toe is actually blue, but this guy is from a line of smaller Uglydolls, 8 inches tall. He's deep black, with an oval dark orange nose. The nose is key, somehow, though I can't explain why.
The boys took to stealing Big Toe, spiriting him away by force or guile. I of course had to rescue him, and there would be epic battles, chases, wrestling matches, keep-aways, intrigues. Years passed.
In a burst of inspiration, I bought a second Big Toe—dubbed "Faux Toe"—that the boys didn't know about. He started as a stunt double—I was genuinely worried about the original Toe being manhandled to pieces, after having borne so much in the line of duty. I respected him too much to allow that to happen. Two would last longer.
But he also became a kind of decoy. This second Toe allowed the first Big Toe, whom I of course called "True Toe," to vanish in one spot, and then re-appear somewhere else, in sleights of hands that confounded the boys. It was a great moment in the dad/boys tug-o-war when the older boy finally realized there were two, my reluctance to have the deception finally revealed overshadowed by pride of accomplishment.
More Toes were purchased. One to mark our visit to F.A.O Schwarz in New York City. My wife actually bought me another for Valentine's Day. Yet another came aboard after a visit to Comix Revolution when I spied a Toe that just, well, he called out to me. I couldn't leave him. He was very puffy. To be honest, it took an act of will to stop at five, a gathering I refer to as "The Full Congress": True Toe, Faux Toe, New Toe, Skew Toe (he looks a bit to the left) and Tip Toe, who has an ear pointing up.
By now, with the passage of years, the boys have moved beyond such things. And me? Well, I'm working on it. Okay, I'm not working on it. I've surrendered to it. I consider them half Legion of Superheroes, half domestic staff, on the job, radiating a certain good-natured tranquility, and a diligence, keeping an eye on things. They're very stolid and uncomplaining, and I value that.
"Thank you for your service," I'll say, passing one standing guard atop a pillow. "You're doing yeoman's work, Mr. Toe." Having five out at a time would be cluttered—they tend to topple over—so usually one is on duty, while the others wait in reserve. "Okay Mr. Toe," I'll say, "let's get you to a secure location, right away." And he'll be swapped out for fresh reinforcements.
Yes, I know. Sometimes the whole thing risks veering into the deeply strange, assuming it is not there already. Once I covertly replaced a photo of the older boy, in a double frame on my night table alongside a picture of his brother, with a photo of Mr. Toe, then waited patiently for the boy to notice. He did, eventually, to great effect. Perhaps the highlight of my fatherhood experience.
Occasionally I have to remind my wife that it's all a joke. A grown man, particularly one my age, not to mention my deep cynicism and highly-polished intellect, would never really love these things, never really give them honorifics—Mr. Toe, Dr. Toe, Prof. Toe, Senator Toe, Field Marshal Toe. That would be silly, ridiculous even. Yes, all a joke, a long-running deception, a comedy routine that I imagine might risk getting old, someday. But not yet. It still retains its freshness and splendor and high hilarity, at least for me. And my wife, God bless her, plays along, usually. We'll both be reading in bed, focusing on our books.
"A doll!" she'll exclaim, very precisely, almost tartly, turning a page. She sounds almost annoyed, which of course is impossible. "A dollie."
"Action..." I'll correct her, feigning annoyance myself, drawing out the word through clenched teeth, "figure."