(This short story, the final one in the group, is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” posted on September 4, “The Celestial City,” posted on Sept. 16, and “The Percy Costellos,” posted on Sept. 23.)
Beautiful in the Way of Mannequins ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Shakespeare was gone in the morning and in his place in the bed was Frankie the mannequin. Elma couldn’t remember at first what had happened the night before, but when she saw the yellow-and-red silk pajamas folded neatly on the chair, it all came back to her.
She and the man from the mannequin factory she had been trying to repel, the man who angered her and made her forget what she was doing, the man known as Shakespeare, had spent the night sleeping side by side in the bed. Only sleeping, it must be emphasized—neither of them had crossed the invisible line that ran down the middle of the bed.
She gave Momma and Poppa their breakfast of sugar corn pops and donuts and, after they were finished eating and installed in front of the eye, she set out to the market to buy beer nuts and Marlboros. It was a cold, blustery day and she wore her coat made of genuine artificial monkey fur, the only one of its kind in the world, and the white fur hat with her hair tucked up inside. People looked at her curiously but she ignored them, even though she thought them rude.
She bought three cartons of Marlboros instead of two and, as she stood in line to pay for them, she thought of the many, many Marlboros she had bought in her life. Sometimes it seemed all she had ever done in her life was buy Marlboros. Momma and Poppa should rightly be dead by now, considering how many Marlboros they smoked and how much unhealthy food they ate, but the years went by and still they sat in their chairs, smoking, eating snacks and staring at the eye.
As she walked home, she told herself that the three cartons of Marlboros would be the last she would ever buy because she was going to kill Momma and Poppa. She didn’t know yet how she would do the deed; it was going to take some careful planning.
A door that had always been closed was now open. She had no blood connection to Momma and Poppa. They had bought her for a thousand dollars when she was a baby. Not only had they used her all her life as an unpaid servant, but they had lied to her. She would have gone on in the same way through all the weary years to come, but not now, though—now that she knew the truth.
After high school, she had no friends and no life other than keeping house for Momma and Poppa and taking care of them. She rarely left the house except to buy food and other things they needed. Poppa had an old car that he kept locked up in the garage out back, but when Elma told him she wanted to learn to drive, he refused, saying that the car was too valuable to entrust to somebody like her. And, besides, she had two legs, didn’t she? That’s all she, or any other woman, would ever need.
When Elma was twenty, Momma had a serious operation and almost died. She was in the hospital for weeks. When she went home, she had a trained nurse to help her to recover, but she dismissed the nurse after two days and insisted that Elma do the nurse’s job. Through many long days and nights, Elma stayed by her bedside, while Poppa sat in his chair smoking Marlboros, watching westerns, news broadcasts, and war movies on the eye.
Elma always thought she would get a job the way other people do, but Momma and Poppa wouldn’t let her. They said she had too much work to do at home. She would have to prove to them she could handle the pressures of a job and all her work at home besides before they would even consider letting her get a job. They wanted her to get a full night’s sleep every night so she would be able to do all the things they needed her to do during the day. No, working at a job outside the home was out of the question.
In high school she took typing and shorthand and was good at them. She bought an old typewriter from the school for twenty dollars and this she used to keep up with her typing. She didn’t want to be completely useless in the world. Instinct told her that Momma and Poppa would die, or maybe turn her out after they got tired of her, and that she would have to earn her own living.
Poppa had some financial reverses when Elma was in her mid-twenties and it turned out that he and Momma didn’t have nearly as much money as they thought they had. There wasn’t going to be enough money to keep up with monthly expenses, so Elma went to work at the mannequin factory.
The job didn’t pay much, but Elma had never worked before so it seemed a princely sum. And, if she was frightened out her wits to be out in the world for the first time, she quickly adapted. In spite of her odd appearance and her eccentricity, she was good at her job because she ignored all the distractions that other people had. She didn’t care about her appearance, never socialized with the other employees and never, ever took smoke breaks or coffee breaks.
She had been at the mannequin factory now for twelve years. Her youth was gone and where did it go? Her beauty? She never had any to begin with. She was what they call a spinster. She had never been out on a date with a boy or a man and, when she looked at herself in the mirror, she knew why.
She had gone through a period in school where boys made fun of her, made pig sounds or monkey sounds when she walked into a room, but after they grew tired of her and desisted, they ignored her entirely, which, in a way, was worse than being laughed at. No male of the species had ever paid her any attention at all until Shakespeare came to work at the mannequin factory.
She still didn’t know quite what to make of Shakespeare. Now that she had had a day and a night to think about all he told her at his mother’s grave, the whole thing made perfect sense—all the pieces fell into place. Momma and Poppa never had any real regard for her because they had purchased her the way they would purchase a refrigerator. To them she was nothing more than a commodity. How could she have not seen it before? Did she not know enough about the world by the time she was grown to know how parents are supposed to behave with a daughter?
Sunday evening there was a knock at the door. Elma never answered the door, but she somehow knew it was going to be Shakespeare and it was.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
“You’re getting better,” he said. “A while back you would have told me to leave you alone and then slammed the door in my face.”
She attempted a small smile but it turned into a grimace. “I was just about to roll up my hair,” she said.
“Come out for a while,” he said.
“No, just…out and back.”
She put on her coat and hat and left without a word. Momma and Poppa wouldn’t even know she was gone. They had all the smokes and all the snacks they would need for the evening.
“Have you thought about what I told you on Friday?” he asked after he had driven a couple of miles through town, out past the high school, the shoe factory and the sewage treatment plant.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” she said.
“Do you believe me?” he asked.
“Yes, I believe you. Why would you say such a thing if it wasn’t true?”
“Nobody ever offered to give me eighteen thousand dollars to go away and start a new life,” he said.
“I told you I’m not going to take any money from you,” she said.
“It’s not from me. It’s from my mother. I thought I already made that clear.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to stay right here and kill Momma and Poppa after what they did to me.”
“Do you want to go to prison?”
“It’d be worth it to see them dead,” she said.
“Don’t you think it would be better if you quit your job at the mannequin factory and went far away and didn’t tell Momma and Poppa where you were going? Wouldn’t that be punishment enough? Then they’d have to do things for themselves, get their own beer and cigarettes, instead of having somebody to wait on them.”
“No, I know them. They’d find themselves another small child to buy, the way they bought me. Probably an older one that would be beneficial to them right away. Six or seven years old. Old enough to fetch and carry and make beds and clean floors. I’m not going to let them do that.”
“Go to the police, then, and tell them the whole story.”
“I don’t have any proof. They’d think I was just some neurotic bitch with an axe to grind against my parents.”
“Killing them is not the answer, though.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a revenge killing?”
“Only in the movies.”
He drove twelve miles to the next town and into the shopping district. The stores were closed and the streets nearly deserted, but he parked the Cadillac on the street and got out. She followed him, afraid to sit in the car alone.
He walked into the middle of the next block, to Pasquale’s Department Store, purveyors of high fashion. People with money shopped at Pasquale’s.
“What are we doing here?” she asked. “The store is closed. It’s Sunday night.”
“I want to show you something.”
In a broad display window were four female mannequins, spaced evenly apart: one blonde, one brunette, one auburn-haired and one with hair the same color as Elma’s fur hat.
“This one’s Rochelle and that one is Vivian,” he said. “The next one is Ruby and on the end is Charlotte.”
They were all beautiful, of course, dressed in evening gowns and swathed in jewels and furs. They were the society ladies that factory workers don’t ordinarily see.
“You drove all the way over here to see them?” Elma asked.
“We made them at the mannequin factory. I painted the faces. Aren’t they lifelike?”
“You can almost see them breathe.”
“Which one do you like best? Which one would you most like to look like?”
She chose auburn-haired Vivian in the gold gown, and he said, “I thought you’d choose her.”
“Does she have a last name?”
“Vincent. Vivian Vincent.”
“At least it’s not a grave you’re showing me this time.”
“I can make you as beautiful as Vivian Vincent.”
He took hold of her arms from behind and moved her to the side so that her face was reflected in the glass over Vivian Vincent’s face. “See? Elma becomes Vivian Vincent.”
“She’s a mannequin,” Elma said. “I’m not. What are you going to do? Paint my face the way you would a mannequin’s? And what about the clothes? All my clothes are ugly, just like me.”
He laughed. “It doesn’t hurt to imagine, does it? You play imaginary games with your mannequins all the time in your room, don’t you? You imagine that Frankie in your bed in the silk pajamas is a real man and that the other mannequins talk to each other and talk to you. It makes you feel good. Less alone in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“This morning when I woke up, I thought Frankie was you, or you were Frankie. You and Frankie are the same. I think I’m insane and always have been.”
“No more insane than anybody else,” he said. “You have to be at least a little insane to live in this world.”
On the way back, he said, “You don’t have to kill Momma and Poppa. I’ll take care of them for you.”
“You’ll kill them?”
“No, better than that.”
When he pulled up in front of Elma’s house, he turned off the ignition and, without a word, the two of them went inside. Poppa and Momma were immersed in their Sunday evening programs and didn’t even look up.
“Good evening, sir!” Shakespeare said. “Good evening, ma’am!”
“They don’t hear you,” Elma said.
As before, she took him up the winding stairs to her rooms and, once they were inside, she locked the door. They listened to the wind outside for a while and then Shakespeare gently removed Frankie from the bed and set him on his feet, as before. He slipped out of his clothes and into the red-and-yellow silk pajamas and he and Elma got into bed, both observing the invisible line down the middle.
“Do you want to see the Celestial City?” he whispered.
He took two pills out of the pocket and gave one to Elma and took the other one himself. In two minutes, the room began to shimmer and whirl and the mannequins began to dance with each other around the bed. The ceiling receded and in its place was the Celestial City, filled with unearthly light and happiness. Elma saw herself and she was as lovely as Vivian Vincent, even more so, and Shakespeare was handsome beyond believing—every bit as handsome as Frankie in the silk pajamas but better because he was alive.
The Celestial City was not a place for human language, but Shakespeare somehow conveyed to Elma this message: When you wake up you’ll find Momma and Poppa greatly changed.
Elma didn’t know how long she was in the Celestial City—it was time without measure. When she woke up, she wasn’t surprised to find that Frankie the mannequin, instead of Shakespeare, was in the bed beside her. Her first thought, though, besides Frankie and Shakespeare, was how, and in what way, Momma and Poppa were “greatly changed.” She put on her bathrobe and slippers and went down the winding stairs.
Momma and Poppa were in their chairs, as usual. Momma held a cigarette on the way to her mouth and Poppa held one between his lips, although both cigarettes had gone out. Across the room, the eye was blatting at them in its usual way, but Momma and Poppa weren’t seeing it because their eyes were made of unseeing glass. If Elma had taken a knife and cut them open, she would have found only stuffing inside.
Though they were now mannequins, they weren’t beautiful in the way of mannequins, but as ugly as they had been in life. Every wrinkle on their faces, every pouch and every crease was there; their eyes were small and rodent-like and their mouths hard and mean. Momma’s hair was iron-gray and unkempt and Poppa’s shirtfront held dribbles of all the food he had eaten in the last week. Elma gave them one long and satisfying stare and went back up the winding stairs.
Frankie had risen from the bed and was sitting in the chair, his face radiant with warmth and good will. His flexible arm was extended and in his flexible hand was an envelope with Elma’s name written on it. When she opened it, she found eighteen thousand dollars in cash.
She bought, for the first time in her life, some fashionable clothes that looked good on her and that complemented her luxurious auburn hair. She bought a large suitcase and packed all her new things in it and left the old things out.
She said goodbye to the mannequins in her room and left the house for the last time. She took a taxi to the train station and there bought a ticket to Lincoln, Nebraska, traveling under the name of Paulette Merriman.
She would spend a few days in Lincoln and see if there was any of her real family left who might remember what had happened to her when she was a baby. After that, she would keep going as far west on the North American continent as she could until the tracks ran out.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp