My girlfriend and I were walking back to my place from Target, whose red, illuminated sign had become my new moon, when I saw the Dumpster sitting behind the Cineplex 16. I’d recently moved into a newly-built apartment complex that bordered an outdoor shopping mall, and everything, including myself, felt prefabricated and flimsy. Yet the tides of commerce continued to ebb and flow.
Instinctively, I veered from our path to look inside the Dumpster, and there they were: two mannequin torsos in a sea of discarded popcorn bowls and Swedish Fish boxes. My girlfriend and I conferred briefly about trash laws, decided there probably wasn’t such a thing, and went on to yank the mannequins out like corpses from a tomb. The one I grabbed was black and had no limbs or head at all, just a torso and thigh-nubs with a cod-piece-like bulge in between, while the one my girlfriend handled was all matte-white and had a smooth, bald head that brought to mind both whipped cream and chemotherapy. Together we carried these hard bodies through the foot traffic of autonomous humans, who stared curiously, jealously, at our stiff new children. She and I had just started dating and were cherishing the constant fits of frantic lovemaking in between near-violent arguments that usually involved money, and if her carrying a plus-sized Lane Bryant mannequin torso with 36DD breasts through a crowd of Saturday shoppers wasn’t a testament of love, then go ahead and kill me now. Her hand cupped one of those huge polymer breasts—maybe unconsciously, maybe not—as we walked, and I couldn’t help but feel turned on. Then again, this fleeting sting of eroticism may in fact have come from the muscular contour of the mannequin torso I held against my own body.
This is how families are made.
I know, what does a man need with two mannequin torsos. Nothing, really, so I returned the white one to the Dumpster and began to dress up the black one like a child who refused to age. Mannequins offer up a pleasing sense of docility. They’re totally inanimate, petrified by design. My mannequin, having no limbs or head, is light and unfussy, how I imagine a mute child’s would be, although then again, maybe not.
My mannequin is 35” tall—the average height of a 2.5 year old boy. If our current mentality persists, my girlfriend and I will never own a 2.5 year old boy, or girl, or, for that matter, any human of any age. This mannequin in my office might be the closest thing to a kid I’ll ever have, not counting my cat, who’s more like a courier sent from the future with only this one message: Feed me. Without kids, I see no reason why I’d ever find myself in the position of dressing up another body, notwithstanding the freak possibility of something dire happening to my girlfriend, something that renders her paralyzed, perhaps, or vegetized, god forbid, so this plastic torso could be, in a way, some sort of substitute.
For nearly six years now I’ve been draping this thing in jackets, festooning it with scarves, buttoning buttons tight up to the neck, without ever thinking much about it. That is until one day when I turned around and looked out the big window in my office and saw my neighbor smoking a cigarette at a small wooden table with her eyes lowered, as if she’d just witnessed something horrifying. Maybe she had. Maybe I’d become the creepy neighbor who dresses giant dolls. I closed the blinds and continued buttoning the shirt.
My mannequin has worn thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of clothing, including rare garments that most people will never themselves see up close in this life—a pro-cut Champion Phoenix Suns warm-up jersey, a vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Suicide Skier jacket, a 1984 Iron Maiden Aces High World Tour T-shirt, and on and on. If the value of these things makes little to no sense to you, then good, it shouldn’t. I still don’t understand it myself.
Much of what I dress my mannequin in is not of a style I’d ever consider putting on my own body, nor would I dress my hypothetical child in such garish clothing. If for some reason I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t take photos of him and upload them to the eBay server for buyers to slaver over, like I do with my mannequin. Even though my mannequin is in all of these photos, acting as a placeholder for a human body, it remains pretty much invisible, as most mannequins do. Not once has a customer asked about my mannequin, and why should they? Mannequins are from the planet called It Goes Without Saying. Yet, I still await the day when someone buys a shirt from me and sends me a message a few days later saying, Cool shirt, but where’s my mannequin?
Rescuing a plus-sized mannequin torso from the trash is only the first step in any serious relationship, so my girlfriend and I moved in together, moved away from each other, moved closer, and finally moved to the middle of nowhere, together, with my mannequin, as something like a family.
Her dad helped us make the move. He hauled boxes from our second-story Congress Park apartment, down an Escher-esque set of stairs whose construction seemed to come from the blueprints of some sadist’s spiteful nightmare, and out to the U-Haul he had rented for us. I’d been sliding around boxes on the hardwood floor for so long I began to think I was on the beach, listening to waves lap and shush. I was sitting on one such box, a Jimmy John’s sandwich securely between my hands, when her dad asked if he could move my mannequin. I said yes but regretted it immediately. Watching him carry that lean black body, his enormous rosy hands gripping the pectorals like he would some alien musical instrument, it fired off an alarm in me that I can only equate to what I figure a mother or father must feel when they see a stranger put his hands on their child. I gulped through my roast beef and shuddered.
Sometime later, after we’d unloaded the U-Haul and sat around in our new living room, delirious and depleted, her dad asked me of my mannequin, So, uh, I wasn’t going to ask, because I’m not sure if I want to know, but what do you do with that thing anyway?
Whenever I see the word mannequin, I think of another—manqué. After some quick etymological investigation, I found that there is no correlation between the two words, and the association probably comes from some forgotten mnemonic device I created and accidentally discarded like I do with all the others.
Manqué, which means “having failed to become what might have been,” always struck me as the right word for a mannequin—a sub-humanoid that almost became a person but fell short, ended up featureless and sometimes limbless, castaways forever doomed to roam the mossy swamps of the uncanny valley. Therefore a mannequin is like a person manqué. An aborted fetus could also be considered a person manqué. I’ve never had anything to do with abortions, as far as I know, but there did come a time, after a shameful wild streak of careless encounters with strangers in my early twenties, when I received a pregnancy scare text message. Luckily, it amounted to nothing more than hollow, digitized words on a cheap flip-phone screen. Either way, I think that makes me a father manqué.
If I had to guess, I’d say my mannequin came from JoS. A. Bank. They had one of those stores in the outdoor shopping mall, right next to the mailing room I used to ship my packages from. The name alone—that awful majuscule S—has deterred me from ever stepping foot into one of the stores, though I have walked by the storefront on numerous occasions, meaning it’s possible that I saw my mannequin in the window, wearing god knows what—a Gore-Tex cummerbund or something—but wouldn’t have known to think that someday I’d be taking it home with me. Nobody thinks something like that, the same way you don’t walk past a playground and think: Maybe someday that kid on the monkey bars will be mine.
When I first found my mannequin it was covered in a thin, scratchy cloth that clung to its body like skin. After a few years of use, the cloth began to rip and tear and I thought it best to remove the membrane entirely. I tore off the flesh in long, fine strips. Dust flew up from years of being trapped between cotton and plastic. The shiny body beneath resembled those mannequins in sex shop windows, those dressed in spiked dog collars and strap-on dildos and gag-balls. As if I wasn’t already getting enough flak.
Patches of yellowish plastic showed through portions of the black outer shell, so I dug around for some acrylic paint, spread out sheets of newspaper, and got to work. Behind me, the blinds hung open. The neighbor dog barked its head off. Maybe the neighbor lady was smoking at her table, maybe not.
I was forced to hold the mannequin in awkward positions as I painted. I held it by the ass cheek, the codpiece. This is not parenthood, I reminded myself, but I felt it again, that warped form of intimacy, that which can only come from helping the helpless. I squatted there, brush in hand, like some New Age Geppetto conjuring a child from wood, from plastic. The mannequin stood upright on its nest of newspaper in the bright light of day as I walked circles around it, pleased by my craftsmanship. I couldn’t wait for my girlfriend to get home. I couldn’t wait to show her what a great father I’d make.
Cameron Thomas Snyder lives with his girlfriend in rural New Mexico, where he writes and commutes fourteen miles round-trip to check his mail. He was awarded the 2019 Emerging Writer Fellowship in Nonfiction from Lighthouse Writers Workshop. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, BULL, Maudlin House, Flash Fiction Magazine, Exposition Review, and Barrelhouse.