Plastic Ponies by Ellen Carpenter
Cindy wasn’t sure how many plastic pony dolls she’d lit on fire by now, but she knew the number must be over a hundred. She felt a perverse kind of pleasure watching their bright painted faces and shiny mouths slowly melt into the ground. Not to mention the smell. Burnt plastic had always been one of her favorite smells, the same way some people felt a strange attraction to the smell of gasoline or rubbing alcohol. She liked how the plastic burned in her nose and the back of her throat, the way each pony melted into the grass, pink and swollen, like flesh. The way they twisted into grotesque shapes, their four legs splaying open until they resembled the sick figures more reminiscent of the sordid pornos she’d found shoved under her ex boyfriend’s bed than the playthings for young children. The titles blared, “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS UNCUT AND UNTAMED WILD EXOTIC PLAY FULL CENTERFOLD PICS.” Cindy had come across these items while in the process of hiding her own beneath the same bed.
x x x
Evan watched people from behind the cash register every day during his shifts at the convenience store. He hated the way they all walked through the automatic glass sliding doors like sheep, bleating at the racked up price of bottled water, and dragging their children behind them. It was fun to pick out all the sad fucks from people still clinging to their sanity. Just today there was a woman who came in around 10:00 am, with red rimmed eyes and a bright yellow plastic purse in the shape of a watering can. She bought a sympathy card and a jar of Vaseline, and handed him a hundred dollar bill when she got to the check out. When Evan told her, “Sorry, we only accept bills under fifty”, the woman launched into what would have probably been a twenty minute lecture concerning the convenience store’s oppression of her right to buy commodities, but the man behind her told her to shut up and move along, he had a shovel in the back of his car, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. The store manager escorted shovel-man back out to his car after that, while watering-can-purse-woman paid and left in a disgruntled silence. Evan knew she was the type of person who’d never come back to this particular chain of convenience stores again.
The latest customer bought eighteen frozen beef stroganoff dinners for a total of thirty-four ninety-nine. Evan always hated those frozen dinners, hated the way the cardboard got all soggy and started to smell sour as the ice on the box began to defrost. His mother had been forcing those awful frozen dinners down his throat for nineteen years, and he’d never been able to eat instant mashed potatoes or creamed corn without feeling nauseous. By the time beef- stroganoff-man lumbered over to the till, the line at the store was ten deep. When it was finally his turn to check out, all eighteen dinners were the exact half-melted consistency Evan knew and dreaded they would be.
The only other activity Evan could entertain himself with while working behind the till was peeling off the hangnails on his fingers, and picking at the scabs he always seemed to have on his knees and elbows. It was harder to get away with picking at his fingers, because if the hangnail wasn’t ready to come off, his finger would bleed. It was always a little weird to give some customer a receipt he’d just dripped his own blood on. Once, a lady gave the receipt back to him and asked if he could print another. She was definitely the same kind of person as watering-can-purse-woman.
Now, at 6:57—exactly three minutes from the end of his shift—Evan watched a woman, who must have been about thirty, walk down an aisle and pick up a box of knock-off plastic ponies. Evan had been pulling at a particularly painful hangnail as she came into view. The hangnail was right on the corner of his nail, and each time he pulled, the piece of broken skin would rip open wider and wider. A drop of blood blossomed out of the very top of the hangnail. Evan looked up from his finger for a moment to check on the woman’s progress. She walked languidly over towards the register, and Evan knew he’d have to check her out. The shithead who took his night shift was always late. This meant he’d have to rip off the hangnail he’d been working on before she got to the till, and bleed all over everything. The woman paused at a tiny stand next to the check out line where a display of lighters gleamed. She dragged her index finger along the row, stopping on a green one, and plucked it off the stand—a fragile, sugar-coated delicacy. She made her way to the front of the register; Evan thought about what brand of cigarettes she smoked. He guessed she was into Newports, and preemptively turned around to pull a pack off the shelf, grabbing them loosely and half hiding it in his long shirt-sleeve, ripping his hangnail off in the process, which hurt a lot more than he thought it would. A small cough emitted from behind him.
Evan spun around to face her a little too forcefully, flinging the Newports, and several flecks of blood over the checkout counter. They landed near her foot, not quite touching the edge of her shoe.
“Sorry ma’am, I thought you wanted a box of—or I mean, a package of these—those— sorry, uh—those Newports”
His words came out more tangled than expected. Ma’am. I called her ma’am. He resented the pink flush he knew was creeping up towards his cheeks. She looked at the cigarettes for a moment, then picked them off the floor the same way she’d plucked the green lighter off its stand moments ago.
“For the record, I’d never smoke Newports.”
Her voice was lower than he expected, and she lingered on each syllable of the sentence like she was exceptionally bored. She eyed the ponies expectantly, and Evan flipped the box over to look for the barcode. His finger was still bleeding, and he looked up to apologize for the blood that would inevitably stain the woman’s receipt, but instead, Evan made the kind of accidental eye contact everyone goes out of their way to avoid. It was a different woman’s eyes he was looking into, he felt pinned to a white sheet under her gaze, her eyes almost black with macabre excitement. He thought about the lighter. If she wasn’t smoking cigarettes, what would she be using it for. This is one sad, messed up motherfucker, he thought. But the moment lasted only for a fraction of a second, and then the woman’s eyes returned to her passive glance, and Evan wasn’t pinned to a sheet, and he scanned the barcode.
x x x
When Cindy was 16, she slashed her wrists open in a warm bath and watched herself bleed in the mirror on the wall across from her. She always thought it was disgusting that the movers who installed the bathroom furnishings years ago thought it would be funny to hang a mirror across from the tub, so you had to watch your naked body slowly shrivel every time you took a bath. Her mother had wanted to move the mirror ever since it had been put up, but it hadn’t happened in four years, and it probably never would. In that moment, as Cindy watched the water turn pink with blood, she thought she looked romantic, even beautiful. She liked the way her long hair (darker from soaking in the bath) slithered wet trails of water down her breasts, and the way her body looked so white against the pink water, a marble statue sinking cold and stiff into the bath. She’d laid her childhood toys on the toilet seat and window-sill to watch. Ten plastic ponies stood out against stuffed rabbits and tigers. Her mother found her in the bathroom thirty minutes later, near comatose and as white as the tub she floated in. Of course, an ambulance was called, her mother sobbed hysterically over her baby girl, and Cindy lay on the stretcher, eyes closed and still naked under the translucent white of the hospital sheet.
x x x
Evan was tired of his job. He had three weeks to move out of his mother’s before whatever shit family who bought the house arrived and repainted over all the cigarette burns on the walls and ripped up the faded carpet and changed the light bulbs and did whatever else people do when they move into a new place. He had three weeks to move out to where? His car probably. Maybe he’d drive to California and live on the beach like a bum. That’s what his mother had always called him anyways. It’s my destiny Ma. You always told me I’d be a bum and that’s what I’m gonna do; how do you feel now? But he knew it was a stupid idea as soon as the thought came to mind.
It was 7:13. Pony woman had taken forever. Evan took off the green apron he had to wear for his clerk position, and walked out of the convenience store through the automatic sliding doors, the final sheep of the day. He’d borrowed a Band-Aid from a box in the medical aisle to wrap up his finger, and it throbbed slightly under the too-tight seal of the bandage. He fumbled for a cigarette, and when he finally pulled one out of the battered package in his back pocket, it was broken. Evan smoked the crooked cigarette anyway, leaning on the drivers side of his car, and watched across the parking lot as pony woman was getting into her car. She had thick, shoulder length hair. It shone faintly in the few rays of sunlight that still managed to slant between the dusky trees in the August heat. He couldn’t quite make out what color her hair was—one moment it looked dark, nearly black, but when she flicked her head slightly, the strands that were tossed in the air were auburn. Without warning, she looked up at Evan, startling him when she called out across the lot.
“Wanna know what I’m going to do with them?”
“Wanna know what I’m gonna do with the ponies, dummy?”
“You’re gonna give them to your… niece?”
“I hate children.”
Evan didn’t really like kids either. They freaked him out, some of the things they said. He remembered standing in line for a movie, and a little kid asking him why he’d paid all in quarters. Or once, while in a park, a different kid approached Evan and asked him if he wanted to see a dead bird. The boy’s mother came running up after him, clearly trying to control her child, but he kept pointing to a fountain at the center of the park, yelling, “It’s over there! The bird’s over there!” Kids always seemed to be fascinated by stuff like that. Evan looked up at the woman again.
“So, what are you going to do with them?”
“I’ll show you.”
Evan flicked the butt end of the crooked cigarette onto the pavement and walked over to pony woman. There was a half-gallon of kerosene laying in the back seat of her car, along with an old, worn tarp.
“Wanna burn them with me, Evan?”
x x x
His name tag said “Evan” on it. He was probably nineteen, with swarthy eyes and hair like pitch.
“You know my name?”
“You work at a convenience store. You have a name-tag. I know your name.”
She noticed how he’d looked at her purchase of the lighter and half dozen plastic ponies with mild interest, like he was taking notes. Cindy didn’t know exactly why she called him over to burn the ponies with her; he could have easily stared at her like she was a freak, and gotten into his car without a word. But she couldn’t help asking, leaning against her car door. She’d tried to say something more conversational like, “Hi”, but instead it came out:
“Wanna know what I’m going to do with them?”
But Evan was all right, and he walked across the lot towards her, and the ponies, and the kerosene, and the tarp.
“Let’s take a walk Evan.”
Cindy knew there was a park only ten minutes away from the convenience store, which was a good thing, because she was anxious. The ponies always felt restless in their box just before they burned.
x x x
The earliest memory Evan could recall took place at the dinner table. He was eating a frozen dinner—beef stroganoff, in case that clears up some confusion—and picking at a scab on the side of his forehead. The scab wasn’t ready to come off. It was stinging, blood oozing from around the edges, but Evan was determined to remove it. His mother looked up from across the table, and saw Evan picking at the scab. She only looked at him and said,“The basement stairs hurt yesterday, didn’t they?”
The beef stroganoff felt like thick string. Every time he tried to swallow, shredded meat would get stuck, one end halfway down his throat, the other still sitting on his tongue. He pulled a piece out of his mouth and examined it, grey and covered in saliva. His mother smacked his hand and the meat flung onto the wall opposite him, barely missing her face.
“What did I tell you about playing with your food Evan? Don’t you dare eat that way in front of your mother.”
Evan sat up, his hand stinging along with the scab. He didn’t want his dinner. His mother’s eyes were shining bright and black in the half-light of the dim light bulb buzzing above them.
“You’ll eat every last bite on your plate, I can sit here all night, you’ll eat it all or so help me I will—” She faltered, milky tears traced down the side of her cheek, but she didn’t look away from Evan. Her eyes were so bright and wide and black.
x x x
It was nearly nightfall by the time Cindy and Evan arrived in the park, and the leaves and grass and trees were all the same dusky blue color, broken by weak rays of light. The park closed at sunset, but they both stepped over the sign that forbade trespassing after dark.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“What do you want to know that for? Are you going to write me up for trespassing after hours?”
“I’m burning plastic in the woods with a person I’ve known for a half hour. Tell me your name.”
“It’s Cindy. My name’s Cindy.”
Cindy. Sounded like a combination of “cinders” and “candy”. Cindy opened the box of plastic ponies, took out each one and lined them up so they faced her and Evan. They waited patiently with glossy smiles and big, black eyes. Evan could tell she’d performed this ritual hundreds of times before—the way she seemed to know exactly how much kerosene to pour over each tiny figure, the way she told Evan to move the tarp further away so it wouldn’t catch fire, the way she threw the lighter on top of the plastic, like she was pointing a spotlight directly at the main attraction. The fluffy, pastel colored manes of the ponies were the first to go. For a few seconds, a stripe of fire burned down each of their backs and onto their tails, but then the fire crept down to their bellies, and twisted around their hooves until they were consumed in flames. They both sat on the grass, a few feet away from the blaze, and watched sparks of pink, swollen flesh pop in the dusk. The air was acrid, and Evan felt light headed. “I haven’t eaten anything all day, Evan.”
“All we eat at home is frozen dinners. I hate them. And today, some shithead bought thirty-four dollars and ninety nine cents worth of frozen beef stroganoff. I’d rather die than eat frozen beef stroganoff.”
“People who do that make me worry about the rest of the population.”
Evan glanced over at Cindy.
“Alright, I know this is pretty fucked up.”
She looked pale, but unafraid.
“Better than eating those frozen dinners though.”
Evan laughed, because, yes, even burning plastic in a park with a random woman he’d met in the convenience store during the last seven minutes of his shift was better than being home, choking on processed meat and fabricated mashed potatoes, peeling scabs off his elbows and pulling at hangnails. Evan and Cindy sat in the park, now almost completely dark, the trees and grass lit only by the ponies. The ponies melted slowly, pink hooves expanding further and further across the grass, black eyes dripping down the length of their bodies, mouths gaping into garish smiles. After about ten minutes, the ponies were reduced to puddles, and the fire dwindled to a dull glow. Cindy smothered the fire, then scraped most of the melted plastic off of the grass and wrapped everything in the tarp.
“So that’s it. That’s what I do with the ponies.”
“I’m glad I could witness it.”
Evan walked back to his car alone. Cindy left shortly after she wrapped everything in the tarp—she mentioned something about needing to visit her mother—but he could tell she just wanted to leave. He unlocked and opened his car door. His bandaged finger was stiff and clumsy, and he fumbled trying to pull the keys out of the lock. Eventually they dropped on the ground, just under the driver’s side door. There beneath the car door, a piece of paper waited expectantly. Evan noticed it was secured to the ground by a small blob of pink melted plastic. He lifted the piece of paper off the ground, the plastic pulling out like taffy, thin, fragile strands lengthening until they broke from the page completely. The paper had only one word on it: “Thanks”. Below, Cindy had scrawled a number. Evan looked at the slip of paper for a long while. Finally, he stuck it in his back pocket. Then, stooping down, he scraped as much of the pink plastic off of the pavement as he could, and rolled it into a small ball. He placed the plastic ball in his alarmingly full ashtray. The plastic reminded Evan of that bird—a phoenix—the one that bursts into flames at the end of its life, only to be reborn from the ashes of its body. He remembered the promise of frozen dinners at home as he was putting his car in reverse, Cindy’s slip of paper still stuck in his back pocket. His finger continued to throb under his bandage. He didn’t want his dinner. He didn’t want to go home.