I thought it was harmless, my wife Katie and I lending a voice and ever expanding backstory to our stuffed bear, until I happened upon a segment of the Ghost Adventures spin-off, Deadly Possessions, featuring Robert the Doll. I was unable to press the Up arrow to move onto the next channel. I had to see this play out: the host, Zak Bagans, is overcome with dread after a staged interruption by an assistant, delivering a non-urgent note, walks by the doll, shrieks and runs out of the room. Zak requires him to make immediate amends, to clear the air of any offense the doll may have taken, so that unshakable travesties may be avoided before they begin.
In the early 1900s, a boy living in Key West was given a doll. Some legends state that it was brought home by his grandfather after a trip to Germany. Others allude to it as a gift to the boy from a young Bahamian girl, that perhaps the doll had voodoo origins. Robert Eugene Otto must have been quite taken by the doll, taken enough to give the doll his own first name, falling back on his middle name going forward. Any household accidents, such as a vase turning up shattered, “Gene” would blame on his doll. Into his teens, he was known to have lengthy conversations with this doll. Even as a married man, he’d take the doll out with him and his wife, holding “Robert” as he would a young son, doting on it with as much, if not more, devotion. With separate sleeping chambers for the spouses, the doll would spend the night with his master.
Several years ago, my father-in-law returned from a golf outing with a small teddy bear donning a tiny golfer’s outfit, the word “Masters” emblazoned on the bottom of a paw. He gave it to my wife, his oldest daughter, as a souvenir. Combining homage to a famous golfer and the animal it was stitched to resemble, we named it “Roary.” She tossed it on our bed, and one night, soon after, when she had trouble sleeping, I positioned the little bear in front of her face, and guided his arm in a tossing gesture. “Sand in your eyes!” I made it declare. I thought it was a sweet gesture, he was trying to be like the Sandman. Katie laughed and accused Roary of being rude. I laughed too, I could see how that might be interpreted as a dick move. Pretty soon the dick moves outnumbered the sweet ones, because we had more fun riffing on the ulterior motives.
Roary’s lifestyle took shape as a reckless one. A little about him: he dates the girls that don’t make it onto the next round of The Bachelor. He crashes every season of Bachelor in Paradise, but is so detestable he is cut out of anything that airs. We once bought him a pink stuffed bear for Valentine’s Day but he blew it when he proposed to her and a former BIP contestant on the same day.
He hangs out with imaginary thugs named Skulls and Rebar. Together they burn down random, vacant houses across various Chicago neighborhoods. He has his own bursts of ambition, we sense him following us when we go out to eat, and we can see him itching to get behind the counter, mixing drinks, baking away at a pie shop. He picks up random jobs, but his days are skewed in bear years. A two minute shift is a long, rough day. We bring him with us on road trips, and while passing a Domino’s, he took a fancy and decided to donate his time to hanging out in various franchise kitchens and assisting with deliveries. This is his big passion in life. Whenever we order pizza from a different establishment, he shames us for being unsupportive and unrefined in our tastes. Early on we decided his birthday is April Fools Day, so we placate him by ordering from Domino’s this one day of the year. He soaks up the celebration, though he’ll try to tell you any other day is his birthday if he wants you to eat Domino’s with him, especially if it’s actually your birthday; he’ll try to commandeer that right out from under you.
Eugene Otto, who later became a prominent painter, was in the process of converting his home into an art gallery, but died in 1974 before the project’s completion. After his passing, there were reports of footsteps in the attic, accompanied by giggling. A plumber rehabbing the house even reported seeing the doll move across the room on its own. When the home was converted into the Fort East Mortello Museum, with Robert the Doll in a display case, attendees would become unwitting victims if they made fun of the holes in the age-worn fabric, what appeared like pockmarks or scars leftover from vicious acne, or snapped a picture without asking Robert for permission. A string of bad luck would follow them, disrupting their lives enough to make curse seem a more fitting label than coincidence.
Roary’s always telling us how bears are better than humans, and is the first to admit he’s a bear supremacist. He was pissed the bear in The Revenant wasn’t nominated for any Oscars and took to protesting outside of theaters. Sometimes he shows his vulnerability. He’s got daddy issues. His is a deadbeat hiding out somewhere, a mangy bear that hasn’t made an effort to raise him, and so Roary will look at you with those black eyes glinting in the overhead light, sit down and cry out “nobody understands me!” And as soon you feel sorry for him, he’ll turn on you and tell you to fuck yourself.
This bear supremacist, while tagging along on a road trip, was lounging beside me on a hotel bed in Nashville, when my channel surfing landed on Robert’s story. From the viewpoint of someone who would go to great lengths to give his stuffed bear a full-fledged set of character traits, it didn’t seem completely implausible. I was now suspicious of the bear, and we’d have to assume the bear now suspected we might be onto him. How do you then not pussyfoot around a teddy, lest you force him to go in for the kill before you can sneak him into the dumpster?
In that episode of Deadly Possessions, a woman sobbed as she apologized to Robert. She had been t-boned in car accident after car accident, had fallen down a set of steps in her houseboat and broken her back. Her life felt dominated by unrelenting punishment, and all because on one visit to the Fort East Mortello Museum, after she told the doll he was handsome, a man behind her called it ugly. Beware any subconscious notes of sarcasm if you ever lay your eyes on the thin-skinned moppet and try to compliment it. After begging for forgiveness, she paused and listened, cocked her head closer to the doll and said “you’re finished with me? Thank you.” She could barely look Robert in his beady little eyes but she was visibly relieved.
Just as Robert the Doll was a lump of material until a young boy fawned over it, pumped it up with a personality, I wonder if we’re at risk for our own Roary the Bear to ditch the training wheels of another’s make believe and take off running with his own intentions. Will we find arsenic sprinkled in the parmesan packets next time we order pizza from a local place? Will we wake one night to the smell of smoke and find flames rushing up at our bed, Roary hissing just before jumping out the window, “why do you think I’ve been practicing on all those other houses?” And worst of all, will my ghost be so attached to him that I’m unable to drift away from this earth, into the light? At the time of my death will I have no choice but to be absorbed as the final engine to animate his malevolent pranks on the child that finds him, seemingly helpless and lonely on the curb? As eternity ticks inside the indestructible bear, passed down from generation to generation, I’ll be left to accept it; this is where my soul has belonged all along. It’ll explain why I couldn’t help myself, and had to beat the dead horse of a joke until it wasn’t funny anymore.