“Undressing the Vanity Dolls” by Katherine Vaz

This week for my Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge I drew the “mustache-less” King of Hearts (he’s the only king without a mustache – a fun bit of trivia I only learned today when preparing this post).


Did you also know that the four kings in the standard deck of cards also supposedly represent four historical kings? The King of Hearts is Charlemagne, while Spades = King David, Clubs = Alexander the Great, and Diamonds, depending on who you ask = Julius or Augustus Caesar. Okay, done with the trivia. 🙂

For this year’s challenge, Hearts are my suit for stories recommended by others.  (Update 4/12/14: actually I have this wrong: diamonds are my “recommended by others” suit. I had more stories recommended by others  that I had room for in that suit and a few bled into other suits. Hearts is actually my suit for women authors) Katherine Vaz is a Portugese-American writer who I learned about in quite a random way. Often, after our monthly meetings at the Kurt Vonnegut Library book club, some of us will adjourn to a nearby restaurant (named after the Vonnegut novel, Bluebeard) for lunch. Last July, it was just going to be two of us going, so I agreed with my colleague to “just meet you over there.” I got there first, and when he arrived he had two strangers with him. Seems he had been chatting with some “international visitors” in the library and, when asked to recommend a good place for lunch, did what any fine ambassador of our city would do and invited them along. They were in town for a “Portuguese Diaspora” conference (apparently there’s one every year somewhere in the world) at Butler University. We enjoyed a nice lunch and also a sharing of our literary interests. Long story short, I saw this as excellent opportunity to collect some reading recommendations. I explained my annual short story reading challenge to our guests, and they offered several Portuguese authors to consider. One was Katherine Vaz, and I’ve included two of her stories from her collection “Fado and Other Stories” in my 2014 roster.


I got off to a slow start with this story and was worried I wouldn’t like it. I even remember thinking, well, at least I learned what vanity dolls are (“people use them to displace vain desires. If a nun, or any devout person, painted a ball-gown onto a doll and gave it new earrings, the doll absorbed her wish to have those things. A doll dressed as a sailor could cure a travel bug, and one painted with flowers could relieve one of carnal aches.”) I’d never heard of vanity dolls before, and I guess I’ve assumed they really exist and aren’t just a vehicle for this story. Does anyone know?

Anyway, the story really blossomed the more of it I read. The main character, Reginald, now an astronomer, is making a visit to an old favorite botany professor of his (from twenty years ago) who is dying. The hook of the story is that Reginald has always suspected that there was once “something between” the professor (Eduardo Dias) and Reginald’s wife, Alicia. Reginald has never directly confronted Alicia with his suspicions, but has hinted around the bush about it for years. Appropriately, Vaz describes his marriage thus: “Reginald’s marriage to Alicia was redolent with what was withheld, which made it an ordinary, garden-variety union.”

Dias was/is an inveterate charmer, and Reginald has before told his wife that Dias “…had that ability to make everyone feel that he, or she, I suppose, was the only other person alive. It’s a gift. He was like that with me.” On Reginald’s visit to the dying man, Dias insists he take him to the seashore, as a red tide will be coming in, and he wants to see it. Reginald is spellbound by the phenomenon and thinks of Dias that “…he still knew the best secrets. He had a way of making you want to give him something in return.” His visit to Dias also leads him to know, “better than he has ever known… that vitality is plainly the cloak that sexuality wears, so that it can go out in public. That was what his professor was made of, that was his cloak, his finery.”

Vaz’s writing in the final pages of this story totally wowed me. An example: “The red tide was drifting south, the neon blue receding, and as easily as that, as easily and swiftly as a comet arrives, passes on, and does not return again, not in one’s lifetime, the moment for Dias to ask Reginald why he had given him the silent treatment, and for Reginald to ask if the letters were never for Alicia out of a well-founded guilt, came and left, and would present its chance to be regarded no more. Such nullifying moments exist, and their vacancy is as strong as all else that one might name.”

That passage – especially the last sentence – gave me goosebumps, and did again just now as I typed this. So … I guess I liked this story. 🙂

What about you? Have you heard of or read this author? What about other Portuguese or Portuguese-American writers? Id love to hear of them.

(Below: a red tide.)