The Celestial City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” that I posted on September 4.)
Elma awoke, more than ever conscious that Frankie, in the bed beside her in silk pajamas, wasn’t a real person, but a mannequin with movable arms and legs. She groaned and sat up and covered Frankie with the blanket so she wouldn’t have to look at him. It was Monday morning and a squinty-eyed look at the clock revealed that it was already later than she thought.
On this morning she took more pains with her appearance than usual. She stood under a spray of scalding water and washed her hair; after it was dry, she brushed it vigorously in an attempt to give it some body. She had found an ancient tube of lipstick and this she dabbed to her lips, sparingly, to give her face a little color. When she was dressed, she tied a red-and-blue scarf around her shoulders, looking at herself in the smoky dresser mirror to determine if any of these little blandishments had made a difference.
At the mannequin factory, she didn’t say a word to anybody. She went to her desk and began doing the work that had been left to her by people she never saw and who treated her, not badly, but like a piece of the furniture.
In the middle of the morning, she was aware of somebody standing in the doorway looking at her. She turned toward the wall and blew her nose loudly into a wad of used tissue. When she turned back around, the person was still standing there, making clucking sounds with his tongue to get her attention. She looked up and when she saw it was Shakespeare, her heart gave a little lurch in spite of itself.
“Are you looking for someone?” she asked.
“Only you,” he said.
She bit her lip and said, “Humph!”
“You’re looking radiant today,” he said.
She knew how hideously ugly she was; she believed that anybody who suggested otherwise was making fun of her.
“Do you want me to tell Mr. Hilyer you’re here to see him?” she asked.
“I’m not,” Shakespeare said. “I’m here to see you.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” she said. “I’m not interested in your little games.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said. “Your heart cries out.”
She stood up and walked to the door of Mr. Hilyer’s office and put her hand on the knob and started to open the door. It was the cue for Shakespeare to leave.
“I’ll see you later,” he said, waggling his fingers at her and disappearing around the corner.
She sat back down at her desk and Mr. Hilyer came out of his office. He was unused to hearing her speak at all, so he asked, “Who were you talking to?”
“Nobody,” she said. “Nobody here.”
At lunchtime she went down to the lunchroom to get a little carton of milk to have with her roll and apple. Shakespeare was sitting at one of the tables and when he saw her he jumped up and came toward her. She got her milk as fast as she could and turned her back to him, but he followed along behind her.
“Stay and talk for a little while,” he said. “Have a cigarette.”
“No!” she said. “Some of us have work to do!”
“Don’t you want to ask me anything?” he asked.
“Only why you’re bothering me!”
“So you want me to leave you alone, then?”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” He laughed and was gone.
When she left work at the end of the day, Shakespeare was waiting for her at the door, as if it was something he did every day.
She groaned and said, “I don’t want to see you!”
“I have a car today,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride home.”
“I don’t want it!”
Nevertheless, she let herself be led to his car, an old black Cadillac, and got in on the passenger side when he unlocked the door.
“At least it isn’t raining today,” he said as he got in and started the car. The car made a vroom-vroom sound and he said, “This is a classic. They don’t make them like this anymore.”
“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’m used to walking.”
“You don’t want to have a drink with me?” he asked.
“No! I don’t drink!”
He turned and looked at her with a smile and she turned her face away.
“You don’t much like the way you look, do you?” he said.
“What business is it of yours?”
“I can help you if you’ll let me.”
“Let me out at the next corner.”
“All your life you’ve been told you’re ugly and they’ve got you believing it.”
“That’s enough. Let me out!”
“No, I don’t want to,” he said.
“Why do you persist in bothering me?” she asked. “Just look at me!”
“You know I spray paint mannequins at the mannequin factory?”
“I’m so happy for you!”
“No, you’re not. You’re very unhappy.”
“You know nothing about me.”
“I know more than you think I know.”
“If you don’t stop bothering me, I’m going to tell Mr. Hilyer.”
“What do you think he’d do? Is he your boyfriend or something?”
“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’ve had enough of this and I’m going to walk the rest of the way.”
“Did you take the pill I gave you on Friday?”
“Don’t you remember? In the bar after work I gave you a pill and told you to take it when you got home.”
“I remember saying I was going to flush it down the toilet.”
“Did you take it?”
“I flushed it down the toilet.”
“I wanted you to take it.”
“Because it will make you happy and beautiful, at least for a little while.”
“I was going to call the police and tell them you’re distributing illegal drugs, but I couldn’t remember your name and I didn’t think you were worth it, anyway.”
When he pulled up in front of her house, she realized she hadn’t told him where she lived. “How did you know?” she asked.
“I’m a good guesser.”
She opened the door and started to get out.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”
“I don’t want anything you have,” she said.
He took a pill out of a little bottle and put it in the palm of her hand. “Don’t flush this one down the toilet,” he said.
“What is it?”
“It wouldn’t help you to know the name.”
“You’re not going to make a dope fiend out of me, if that’s what your little game is.”
“It’s not like that,” he said.
“What will it do to me?”
“It won’t hurt you, I promise.”
“What will it do to me?”
“You’ll see the Celestial City.”
“Does that mean I die?”
“There is no death in the Celestial City.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the main thing is I don’t give a shit.”
“You will,” he said. “Give it time.”
For the rest of the week she didn’t see Shakespeare at the mannequin factory. She was both relieved and alarmed.
By the time the work week was over, she was sick. She had caught a cold and ached in every part of her body. When she tried to eat a little breakfast on Saturday morning, she threw up on the kitchen floor. After she cleaned up the mess, she locked herself in her room and went back to bed.
As she lay there, she remembered the pill that Shakespeare had given her. Without thinking too much about it, she arose from the bed, took it out of its hiding place in the dresser drawer, and swallowed it.
She lay back down on the bed, composing herself for death, legs straight out and hands over her abdomen. She knew she was taking a terrible chance by swallowing a pill that a person like Shakespeare had given her, but she was past caring. If she died, she would never have to see Momma and Poppa again or the mannequin factory, which had lately become more and more odious to her.
She felt nothing for a few minutes, but then the room began to move, not in a vertiginous but in a joyful, musical way. The people around her, the mannequins she had rescued from destruction at the mannequin factory, began to move around her in time to a beautiful melody. They were fluid in their motions, even the mustachioed outdoorsman and the little boy at play. She felt herself—saw herself—being lifted up from the bed, suspended in the air, surrounded by the mannequins in a circle of light and love. And just above her head, where the ceiling had been, the Celestial City opened up in a burst of brilliant light and untold beauty. A man stepped forward from the light, perhaps a mannequin and perhaps not; she wanted to go to him but was for the moment unable to move her arms and legs. Slowly the man dissolved into nothingness and she fell back on the bed in blackness and utter despair.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp