He was six feet tall, unyielding yet benevolent (plush stuffed with foam pellets), the clean eternal green of AstroTurf, a gorgeous anomaly at a depressing little tag sale; and I fell instantly, unarguably in love. I gave my hair a quick slick. Approached slowly, almost sideways, spinning out the moment of recognition, the shameless desire to possess. Is love ever more delicious than when it blooms against reason, pure as childhood faith?
Tag-sale love is a terrible thing. Even as I was figuring out how to get him in the car, I eagerly hunted for the flaw that would let me leave him behind. But he was just about mint, clean and fluffy, no whiff of basement, no spider eggs. My only hope was for a price so outrageous, my husband’s face would darken and the kids would look scared.
A six-foot Gumby! How not?
“I have to have him,” I said to the tired-looking woman at the card table in the driveway.
“I remember feeling that way.” She almost smiled. “Five dollars?”
Late Sunday afternoon, the end of August, rain looking likely; every price would have a question mark now. At 9 a.m. her coral lipstick had been perfect and her voice said take-it-or-leave-it.
Her husband looked over from a garage so full of things and stuff, there had maybe never been room for the pale blue hatchback at the curb. He would have paid me to take the green giant. I’d been tag-saling for a dozen summers, the span of our country house years, and I knew this couple’s dynamic to a faretheewell. I knew which restaurants they patronized for celebration dinners, and I knew how they were with each other in bed, and they knew me.
“Sold,” I said.
I would hate myself in the morning. I hated myself already. We who go to tag sales mostly do it for this safe little cycle of love and self-loathing.
Games and toys were my passion, but Gumby wasn’t especially my thing. I had a couple of watches, a key ring, the usual palm-size bendables, a Gumby and Pokey pair of earrings, a nice book about colors, but they’d just sort of happened our way. Oh, and a diner-weight coffee mug, so thick it hurt my lower lip. And of course the Gumby and Pokey rubber stamps I’d had made—may the court forgive me the copyright abuse—for invitations to my son’s third birthday party. A decade had passed since Albert sat glued to Gumby videos. These days he was more likely to tune in to All Things Considered.
So why this instant addiction, complete with pulsing at the temples and dryness of mouth? I hadn’t known a six-foot Gumby existed, much less coveted him. This wasn’t the deck of vintage Irish scenic playing cards I’d almost bought at the Stormville flea market two summers before but hadn’t; ogod, ogod, running back and it’s gone; doomed to obsess forever.
Gumby needed me. That simple. He mustn’t go back into the dread garage. This wasn’t some Barney—a product. Gumby rose from the soul of an artist, the inventive animated filmmaker Art Clokey. Gumby was warm but not saccharine. Safety and mischief in fine ratio. The bump on his head was the bump of wisdom. Hadn’t there been a Gumby event at Esalen, the 1970s epicenter of work on consciousness?
Some promo at the mall, the woman was saying, as she put my five-dollar bill in the metal cash box. “A collectible.” The set of her mouth was bit tough now. Poor darling, she was reifying Gumby, distancing herself. She, too, had suffered from the delusion: My eyes alone can detect all the nuances of his soul, my love will complete the circle.
Her husband helped me hoist Gumby and slide him headfirst onto the backseat of our silver Nova. I rolled down the right-hand window to accommodate the overhang. Gumby’s sweet clubfeet stuck out about ten inches. Only a few minutes along Farmers Mill Road to the right turn down Gipsy Trail, but the last stretch took me down a narrow road with sudden curves, no shoulders, and the August riot of overgrown shrubbery along the way. It was going to be dicey. I put on my emergency flashers, and the husband nodded approval.
“Gumby on board!” He put his arm around his wife. They were just about the same height as my husband and I were, and this husband was feeling good about once again being the only six-footer in the house. But my Bob had always wanted a brother. Hadn’t he?
I kept the flashers on. Tooted the horn as I pulled the Nova into our driveway.
I believed Bob’s exact words were: “Jesus fucking Christ.” Nicely. The kids shrieked and went “Mo-ommm.” Nicely. Well, maybe just a touch of panic, but really just a touch. My nickname was Mrs. Sillywoman. I was supposed to bring home the Gumby.
He slept on the playroom couch, then moved to a corner behind a standing lamp. Everyone was polite to him. I can’t fairly say that life was better or worse because he was among us. Fall came, and we switched into a city-country rhythm: five days on West Twelfth Street, then up to Putnam County for the weekend. I want to think Gumby’s banana smile brightened when we came back on Friday nights, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
A few months later, a family with two young boys—Eli, seven, and Max, eleven—moved into our country enclave. I offered them Gumby on extended loan, and the mom and dad wonderfully said yes!
The playroom did feel spacious absent Gumby.
When Bob and I divorced—five years after that, five years earlier than this writing—and I traded my share in the country house toward Bob’s in-the-city apartment, our friends nicely asked if I wanted Gumby back. It wasn’t Gumby I wanted back, and I said no.