At the Mannequin Factory ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Poppa’s face was dry and lined, like old leather. The red pouches under his eyes made his eyes look half-closed, even when they were open all the way. His mouth was a thin, lipless line in which a Marlboro cigarette was inserted. For sixty of his seventy years, he had smoked Marlboros, an untold and uncalculated number of them.
He reclined in his chair that had molded itself to the shape of his body—or his body had molded itself to the shape of the chair. The room was dark and low, the perpetual cloud of smoke hanging like a pall between Poppa and the ceiling. A small lamp with a little cluster of red flowers painted on the lampshade, the only color in the room, sat on a table between his chair and Momma’s.
Poppa and Momma both puffed on their cigarettes. For them, puffing on a cigarette was part of the act of breathing. A breath wasn’t a breath without a puff to complement it. And while they puffed away they both kept their eyes on the screen a few feet in front of them. The screen was the eye on the world, the only eye, to which they had given their fealty. It didn’t matter what was on—a boxing match, a train wreck, news of the world, cowboys and Indians, romance, dancing, drama, music or laughter—it was all the same: they regarded everything the eye brought to them with the same fish-eyed blankness.
The door opened and Elma entered. Momma and Poppa didn’t look up but instead kept looking at the eye. Elma took off her coat and hat and stood in the middle of the room; she looked expectantly at Momma and Poppa, though the eyes through which she saw them were only slits.
“Beer, beer, beer!” Papa said.
“Popcorn, popcorn!” Momma said. “Peanuts, Peanuts!”
Elma went into the kitchen to get the things they wanted and took them back into the living room. When she set the bottle of beer on the table next to Poppa’s arm, he didn’t look up, but his arm reached out, seemingly of its own accord, and brought the bottle to his lips. He took a long drink and smacked his lips and set the bottle back down.
Elma had mixed the peanuts and popcorn together in one bowl, the way Momma liked them. Momma grabbed the bowl and began eating hungrily, never looking away from the eye. Elma opened a new carton of Marlboros and stacked the packs on the table, five on Poppa’s side and five on Momma’s, and when these things were done she went up the winding stairs to her own people.
The room seemed crowded now with twelve of them. They sat or stood about in different poses. Elma had dressed, wigged and hatted them according to her own whims. There was the society lady with the fox fur, the businessman with a pencil-line mustache, the small boy standing beside the dresser in play togs, ready to catch a ball, the lady with one leg canted out, hands on hips. They all had beautiful, painted-on, perfectly proportioned faces, luminous eyes and pearl-like teeth.
Some had movable arms and legs so they might be posed sitting or reclining. Elma liked these best because they seemed more real. To amuse herself, she would sometimes dress a man in a lady’s dress—including a hat with a veil—or a lady in a man’s work clothes or overalls. She also tried different wigs and hats to get a different look or feel. In this way she amused herself for hours and kept from being lonely.
There was one man in particular she liked to whom she had given the name Frankie. His arms and legs moved and his head swiveled from side to side. His skin was soft and pliable and warm to the touch. Elma dressed him in silk pajamas and put him beside her in the bed and covered him up. On cold nights, with the light off, she would have almost sworn there was a living, breathing man in the bed beside her. It gave her a feeling of well-being unlike anything else.
For twelve of her thirty-nine years, Elma had worked in the office of a mannequin factory. All day long she sat at a desk and typed letters or did small errands for the two bosses. They liked her because she always did what she was told to do without complaint, worked for very little money, never missed work, and didn’t mind working an hour or two over when the work was piling up. She was the very rare woman who had little to say and didn’t believe that her opinions were of any importance. If they could have ordered a dozen more like Elma, they would have.
Anytime a mannequin couldn’t be used or was defective in any way, Elma asked if she might have it to keep for her own. Nobody at the mannequin factory ever asked her why she wanted the mannequins or what she did with them, but they were always willing to comply. These mannequins that Elma rescued from the trash heap she added to her collection. When she carried one of the mannequins home, people stopped to look at her, but nobody ever suggested that she was doing something she shouldn’t do or that she should be stopped. Poppa and Momma, of course, never noticed what she did and never went up the winding stairs to her rooms.
One day Elma noticed a man looking at her at the mannequin factory. She discovered his name was Alexander A. Alexander but he went by the name of Shakespeare. She thought at first that he was looking at her because he was new and didn’t know anybody yet, but a week later he was still looking at her, although she didn’t know any reason why he should.
She was delivering a typed report to one of the bosses when she met Shakespeare face to face in an otherwise deserted hallway. Instead of veering away from her and keeping on his side, he stepped in front of her and stopped her in her tracks. He put his hand familiarly on the underside of her wrist and smiled.
“I believe I know you,” he said.
All she could do was shake her head and step around him and walk on. When she got back to her desk, she was breathless and a little confused. No man had ever paid any attention to her before and when she looked at herself in the mirror she knew why. By the kindest and most generous assessment, she was hideously ugly. Her nose was crooked, her hair mouse-brown, her eyes small and ferret-like, her teeth misshapen and brown. She could never remember a time in her life when she had cared much about the way she looked or about the effect that she might have on other people. If Shakespeare spoke to her again, she would ignore him or register a complaint.
On a blustery day in fall when she was walking home in the near-dark, she realized Shakespeare had fallen into step beside her. She hadn’t seen where he came from; he was just there.
“Leave me alone!” she said. “You don’t have any business bothering me!”
She looked at him and when she saw the hurt in his eyes, she knew she had been more unkind than she needed to be.
At home it was always the same. Momma and Poppa never looked at her or spoke to her. They just sat puffing and looking at the eye. She brought their food, which some days was only pretzels, candy, popcorn or beer. When she fixed them a sandwich or a bowl of soup, they hardly ever ate it and she ended up throwing it out.
In the evening after she saw they only wanted to be left alone with their cigarettes and with the eye, she retreated to her rooms and to the people there with whom she felt comfort and peace. She began to ask herself: What kind of life is this I’m living and do I plan on doing these same things every day of my life until I die? The answer, if there was one, did not make itself known.
For the first time in her life, her sleep was disturbed by nightmares, and during the day at the mannequin factory she began to be nervous and tense. She took much longer to do her work than usual and any time one of the bosses sent her on an errand, she usually managed to find a private place, in the ladies’ room or elsewhere, to stand quietly and stare at the wall for a half-hour or so in a trance-like state before returning to her desk.
She didn’t see Shakespeare for several days and wondered what had happened to him. Maybe he wasn’t suited to his job, spray-painting mannequins, and had already been fired. She was more than willing to put him out of her mind.
The next time she saw Shakespeare, it was not at the mannequin factory but on the sidewalk down the street. When she saw him coming toward her in a crowd, she looked away but, again, he stopped her in her tracks and put his hand on her arm.
“I believe we knew each other once,” he said.
She stepped around him and kept going, eyes to the ground.
“Have you ever thought about trying a little makeup?” he said in a loud voice.
“Mind your own business!” she snapped.
Then one day Elma found herself on a tiny elevator with Shakespeare, going up to the fourth floor. For a couple of minutes, at least, she was stuck with him in close quarters and couldn’t walk away.
“We knew each other in school,” he said.
She looked at him with distaste. “I don’t remember,” she said.
“It was a long time ago.”
“I never saw you before,” she insisted.
On a rainy Friday as she was leaving work, Shakespeare was going out the door at the same time she was.
“Would you like to talk?” he asked.
“No!” she said.
He walked along beside her and there was nothing she could do but keep walking with her eyes down and pretend he wasn’t there. When they came to an establishment where liquor was sold, he looked at her and inclined his head to indicate they should enter. Without knowing why, she let herself be led inside.
They sat side by side at a bar. She had never been inside a barroom before and only wanted to leave. When a beer in a glass was set in front of her, she looked at it and didn’t seem to know what she was supposed to do.
“It’s a small world,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know why you’re bothering me,” she said, “but I want it to stop.”
“Do you think whenever a person speaks to you, they’re bothering you?”
“I want to be left alone,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”
“I don’t want it.”
He gave her a tiny pill that he took out of a little brown envelope in his pocket. She looked at the pill in her palm and started to give it back. “What is it?” she asked.
“It’s something that will make you feel better. About the world and about life. Take it and see if it doesn’t.”
“You’re a dope dealer?” she asked.
He laughed, showing his long teeth. “All things are relative,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”
“Put it in your pocket and take it with you. Tomorrow is Saturday and you don’t have to go to work. Take the pill in the morning when you’re alone and see if you don’t have a wonderful day.”
“I won’t take it,” she said. “I’ll flush it down the toilet.”
He laughed again. “Suit yourself!”
When she walked into the house, she was more than usually disgusted by the sight of Momma and Poppa sitting in their chairs staring at the eye and puffing on their cigarettes. She wanted to leave again but the thought of the bleak, wet, lonely streets leading nowhere stopped her. Without acknowledging to Poppa and Momma even that she was home, she went up the winding stairs to her rooms and to the only people in the world who knew and loved her.
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