In the Shape of a Man ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Alexander comes to Marceline in the night, undresses in the dark, and gets into bed beside her. She smells his clean man smell and is aware of the mere animal presence of him: a torso, a head and shoulders, two arms and two legs. The mattress sags under his weight and she sinks closer to him, huddling beside him under the blankets. Timidly she runs her finger along his pectoral muscles and when he seems annoyed she stops.
She can’t, of course, do all the things she longs to do, but it is enough to just have him there in the bed beside her, to watch his handsome profile in the dark. She is reminded of the phrase from the Bible: My cup runneth over. She is too happy, too fulfilled, to sleep well, but it doesn’t matter. She can work on very little sleep or no sleep at all and nobody will notice her heavy eyelids or how sloppily she is dressed or the mistakes she will make in her typing.
When she wakes in the morning he is gone. She sees at once that she is going to be late, but she doesn’t care. She places her hand on the bed where his body has lain and she believes she can still feel his warmth. When she feels herself starting to drift off to sleep again, she throws back the cover and jumps up with alarm.
After performing the necessary ablutions in the bathroom, Marceline dresses hurriedly and goes into the kitchen. Mother is sitting at the table underneath the chicken clock with her back to the wall. She still holds her cards from the gin rummy game the night before. Her glasses glint and her fingernails glisten in the morning light coming from the window.
“Good morning, mother,” Marceline says as she sets about making her morning cup of tea. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Alexander was with me last night. He’s very passionate, such a wonderful lover. I’m a lucky woman.”
A quick look at the chicken clock tells her she doesn’t have time for breakfast, only her scalding cup of tea. Oh, well, she isn’t hungry, anyway. She can get something out of the vending machine at work.
Before she goes out the door, she takes a quick look at her mother and blows her a kiss. “I’ll be home at the usual time!” she calls cheerily. “God willing, of course!”
She misses the early downtown bus and has to wait fifteen minutes for the second one and when she gets on the bus she doesn’t get a seat and has to stand the whole way. When she walks into the office, half-an-hour late, Mr. Frizzell frowns at her and points at his watch. She smiles and goes on to her desk, ignoring the inquisitive glances of her co-workers.
“Late night last night?” Miss Arlette asks archly.
Marceline ignores her, hangs up her coat and sits down at her desk and begins working.
She despises Ivan-Bello (she has worked there for twelve long years) and the people in it. Her days are routine and uneventful. Her real life seems at times like a prison sentence from which there is no reprieve. The building she works in is old, dreary and dilapidated. Rats run along pipes hanging from ceilings. Plaster and paint rain down on people’s heads. Elevators are permanently out of order. And the people in the company are well-suited to their environment; they are unimaginative, unoriginal, colorless and not worthy of interest. Marceline knows, however, that in describing them in this way, she is also describing herself.
Some of her co-workers, especially the younger women, look upon Marceline with suspicion because they know nothing about her and they think there is something fishy about somebody who isn’t friendly with them. They make jokes behind her back about her sack-like dresses, unflattering hairstyle, and lack of makeup. Knowing she isn’t married, they speculate about whether or not she is a virgin or even if she is a woman. They play little tricks on her, like breaking the lead points off all her pencils or putting a rubber spider on her shoulder while she’s sitting at her desk.
At lunch she buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop in the employees’ lunchroom and takes them to the mannequin storage room. It is cool and quiet in the mannequin room—only the mannequins—and she can have a little time to herself away from ringing phones, clacking typewriters and the self-important voices of those around her.
She goes to the back of the room where the mannequins are closest together, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. Some of them are clothed but most are unclothed. Even with no clothes, their painted-on faces are always the same. The men are handsome and the women are beautiful. Some of them have brilliant, life-like eyes and mouths showing pearl-like teeth. They’re lifelike (but not in the way of real people), agreeable and pleasant to be near. They make her feel happy in her life and less alone. Sometimes she kisses one of the more appealing male mannequins full on the lips; she enjoys the sensation and never thinks how peculiar such an action might appear to the casual observer.
She finds a place to sit on a display case where a mannequin has recently been removed and eats her sandwich slowly and when it is gone she finishes her bottle of pop. The empty bottle makes a convenient ash repository, so she lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out luxuriously. People in the mannequin factory are desperately afraid of fire and she would probably be fired if management knew she was smoking in the highly combustible mannequin room, but that doesn’t keep her from smoking. She is not careless the way some people are; if there’s ever a fire it will be through no fault of her own.
As she leaves the mannequin room, she conceals the pop bottle with her ashes and cigarette butt in it in the folds of her dress. On the way back to her desk she throws the bottle away in one of the tall trash cans, hiding it underneath a mound of papers. Nobody can ever claim she isn’t careful.
In the half-hour or so that she has been away, Mr. Frizzell or somebody else has piled more work on her desk that has to be finished by the end of the day. She never hurries herself because she knows in the world of business everything is always urgent. They’ll have the completed work when they have it and if that doesn’t suit them, well, they’ll just have to go up to the roof and take a sixty-foot dive into the trash cans in the alley.
When the day is finally over and Marceline goes back home, mother is still sitting at the kitchen table holding her cards. She lifts mother up—so light!—and carries her into the living room and sets her on the couch and turns on the TV. Mother enjoys the chatter, the endless commercials, the applause and the mindlessness, of late-afternoon TV fare.
She cooks a modest dinner for herself and mother and when it’s ready she carries mother into the kitchen again and slides her up to the table in her customary chair. She has a full place setting for mother—knife, fork, spoon, folded napkin beside the plate—but the truth is mother doesn’t eat much because she isn’t real. She weighs fifteen pounds. She is a life-size doll; that is, she is one of the mannequins from Ivan-Bello, wearing her real mother’s clothes, wig and glasses. Marceline brought her home from work on the bus one day, paying the fare for her as if she were a real person. People on the bus looked at her if she was a crazy person, but nobody said anything and she just smiled to herself at her little joke.
Her real mother, not the mannequin, has been dead for a year and a half. All that remains of her on this earth is an urnful of ashes on the dresser in her bedroom. She died in her bed, in her sleep, not knowing anything, at age seventy-six. For the last twenty years of her life, she had been in what might modestly be described as “poor health.”
Mother was Marceline’s only friend and companion. They never fussed or quarreled in the way of other mothers and daughters. They were together always, each an extension of the other, and when mother died Marceline couldn’t bear coming home every day to an empty house.
Not long after mother’s death, when Marceline was eating and smoking her Camel cigarette in the mannequin storage room, she noticed the resemblance between mother and one of the female mannequins. They each possessed the same small, pointed nose, the same high cheekbones and the tiny dimple in the chin. When she looked at the mannequin for long enough and squinted, she saw her mother and heard her voice. That’s when she decided to claim the mannequin for her own after office hours and take it (her) home with her on the bus.
When dinner is over, Marceline returns mother to her TV in the living room and washes the dishes. She lets mother watch her favorite programs throughout the evening. When it’s time to go to bed, she undresses her, puts her nighty on over her head and tucks her comfortably under the covers.
The man who comes to her that night is Tab. He isn’t beefy and muscular like Alexander but tall and thin, with blue eyes and flaxen blond hair. He whispers Marceline’s name when they are in the throes of passion and she is embarrassed to think that mother might hear them through the thin wall. When it is all over, Tab leaves and Marceline falls, with the help of a pill, into a blissful sleep that is broken only by the harsh buzz of the alarm clock at six-thirty in the morning. It is time to begin another day.
Another lunchtime in the mannequin storage room (nobody has a clue where she is or what she is doing), she spots a male mannequin she has never seen before. He has dark-red hair and long-lashed, amber eyes. He has broad shoulders (but not too broad), a narrow waist, and stands about five feet, ten inches tall. He is in almost every way the perfect man, except, of course, that he isn’t a real man but a facsimile of a man. Marceline knows at the moment she sees him that she must—she simply must—have him. Sensibly or not, she names him Finch.
The next day she brings to work in a shopping bag an old tweed suit that belonged to her deceased father, as well as shirt, bow tie, belt, old-fashioned union suit, overcoat and hat. After five o’clock that day, when everybody else has gone home, she goes up to the mannequin storage room and dresses Finch up in the clothes she has brought, takes him down to street level by way of the fire stairs and home with her on the bus. People look at her and snigger but she doesn’t care.
At home once again, she puts Finch in her bedroom and closes the door. She isn’t ready just yet for mother to meet him. She expects a honeymoon period with him before he and mother become acquainted.
She enjoys undressing Finch at bedtime and putting him to bed and getting in beside him. All night long, she tricks her mind into believing she is not alone in the bed but with a man. And while he may not exactly be a real man, he has dimension. He possess the bodily proportions of a real man—meaning, of course, that he is made up of more than air. She finds that Finch is more satisfying than either Alexander or Tab.
In the middle of the morning Mr. Frizzell summons Marceline to his office and gestures for her to sit in the chair in front of her desk.
“I’m going to ask you a question,” Mr. Frizzell says, “and I want you to tell me the truth.”
She smiles, wishing she could stub out her cigarette on his veiny nose.
“Have you been stealing property belonging to Ivan-Bello?”
“Why would I do that?” she asks.
He sighs, folding his pudgy hands on the desk in front of him. “Somebody saw you leaving the building with one of our mannequins.”
“Who was it?”
“It doesn’t matter who it was.”
“I’ll bet it was Miss Arlette, wasn’t it?”
“I doesn’t matter who. Did you steal one of our mannequins?”
“No, I didn’t steal it.”
“But you took it?”
“I wanted it.”
“No, not to sell.”
“For what, then?”
“I wanted it.”
“It’s company property. We can’t have people stealing from the company. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.”
“You’re firing me?”
“You have the rest of the day to say your goodbyes.”
It’s a little early for lunch, but she goes immediately to the employee lunchroom and buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop and takes them up to the mannequin storage room.
She knows she will not be seeing the mannequins again, so she says goodbye to as many of them as she can. She tenders an apology to the room in general and then smokes the last cigarette she will ever be smoking in the place.
All the way in back of the huge storage room are some old barrels containing papers, books, cloth samples and mannequin clothing. She picks up a little wedge of wood and lights the end of it with her cigarette lighter and throws it into one of the barrels. She isn’t sure if the fire will take hold or not, but after she leaves the building and goes home for the last time she doesn’t give it much thought.
The next morning she gets out of bed and dresses for work at the usual time, careful not to disturb Finch in the bed. She has her cup of scalding tea, gives mother a tiny goodbye peck on the cheek and walks the three short blocks to catch the downtown bus.
The bus can only go so far. It’s four blocks or so from her destination when it becomes snarled in traffic. Rather than waiting for the traffic problem to resolve it, she gets off the bus and walks the rest of the way.
Right away she notices the stench of burning.
Ivan-Bello has been burning all night long and has just about burned itself out. While the outside walls still mostly stand, all the floors, from six on down, appear to have collapsed in on each other. Police keep onlookers back at a safe distance.
As Marceline stands with dozens of other people and watches the fire, she is thankful for many things, not the least of which is that Ivan-Bello is a thing of the past. More importantly, however, mother and Finch are safe at home. She’ll see them again in just a little while and the three of them will be together forever.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp