One cloudy April Thursday, Connor finds himself between projects—restless, a little lonesome—and so he heads out to the mall to take his sister to lunch.
Yellow pine pollen coats his car; it seems to swirl in the air around him. Connor suffers a miserable sneezing fit. If it would rain, he thinks. Wash some of this stuff away. The mall is like a space station: artificial light, airlock double-doors, a hermetic climate-controlled atmosphere. Once inside, his mood starts to lighten.
He finds Terri in women's wear wrestling with a postmodern mannequin—a blank-faced chrome-plated android; she's trying to slither a blue silk dress down over this thing's big shiny bosoms. Connor slips up silently. He doesn't say hey or call her name. He just says, very softly, “There's something unspeakably erotic about watching your sister undress another woman,” and Terri, without turning around or missing a beat, says softly, “First, I'm dressing, not undressing, and second, this is a dummy, not a woman, and third, you are a fucking pervert and if you don't get away from me this instant I'll page security.”
Connor kisses the top of her head, smelling sandalwood and patchouli. “How come there's no arms?”
“They're on the floor, over there,” Terri says, and Connor sees them now, two chrome arms sure enough, and he asks “What are they doing on the floor?” and Terri says “To get a tight dress on a mannequin you have to detach its arms and twist its head and put it through a bunch of contortions like a circus acrobat. It's harder than it looks, David. It's pretty physical. You have to struggle. You have to get personal.” She works the dress down over the dummy's hips.
Connor notices that this is one of the new mannequins with nipples. Small hard metallic nipples plainly visible through the tight dress. He points this out to Terri.
“Damn it,” she says. “I forgot the bra.”
Connor is laughing.
“It's so freakin' weird,” she says. “On the realistic ones, the pink or brown ones with faces, their titties are smooth as ping-pong balls. But on these metalheads, it's all artifice, not realism—except for that one little thing. Some pervert designer.”
They stare at the offending nipples.
“Guess I'd better fix it,” Terri says.
“Leave it,” Connor says. “Let's go to lunch.”
They stand in line at the S&K—Salisbury steak and beets and mashed potatoes for Connor; seven-bean salad and beets for Terri—and once they get settled at the table Connor says, “You know I’ve been working on that documentary about flood stories for the arts council? Interviewing people who lost their homes or their farms or stuff like that?” Terri nods. “Well, watching you dress that dummy reminded me of something. There was this kid with a canoe who was going around saving old ladies, ferrying people’s possessions and rescuing cats and whatnot, and he’s on the river at dusk on the second day when he sees a totally naked dead female body come floating around the bend, and he paddles over to it, full of trepidation, I imagine, being a mere sixteen-year-old boy, and he pulls the canoe alongside, and guess what it is instead of a dead body?”
“Bull,” Terri says, mouth full of beans.
“I’m just telling you what he told me,” Connor says.
“First of all, how did it get in the river,” Terri asks, not even bothering to play along, “and second of all, those things are too damn heavy to float.”
“Who knows how it got in the river?” Connor says. “There was every manner of thing in there. If you made a list of things that exist in the world, you'd have found two thirds of ‘em in the river.” Anyway, he continues, the boy hefts his new girlfriend into his canoe and off they float, meandering all night through the flood plain. Dawn finds them adrift in the estuary. Against his will, the kid is winched out of the water by a National Guard Sikorsky—the rescuer rescued—and from the doorway of the chopper he watches that naked mannequin shrink smaller and smaller as she heads out to sea in his old blue canoe. The End. “What do you think of that,” Connor asks his sister.
“I think some people will believe anything whether it happened or not,” she says. “Now if you dressed mannequins for a living, David, you'd soon get over these patriarchal notions about water nymphs and succubi and women as ornamentation, and find yourself a real girl with some brains in her head and settle down and get married.”
“I don’t want to get married,” Connor says, “and you don’t either. Nobody in their right mind would want to get married.”
Terri crosses her eyes at him. “Pfffffff,” she says.
“I don’t see you out scouring the wilds for a fiancee.”
“Let’s face it,” Terri says, “we’re both fucked. Cynics, pessimists. Freak-ass products of a broken home.”
Connor says he hates the phrase “broken home,” but Terri just waves him off.
“I'll tell you a real mannequin story,” she says, slicing her beets into baby bites. “This is like that woman on Oprah who had all those plastic surgeries and implants and hair extensions trying to look exactly like Barbie. Remember Kathi, from Cosmetics? that I tried to fix you up with?” Connor nods, mouth full of mashed potatoes. “Well, she's turning into a mannequin—I'm not kidding.” There's a brand new mannequin, a real pretty one, in Petites, Terri says, and Kathi stands around admiring it for whole minutes at a time; she buys whatever outfit it’s wearing that week; and when she thinks nobody is looking she cocks one hip and bends her elbow just so, mirroring the mannequin's pose. She even got the same haircut and dye job. “Which is idiotic,” Terri says, “and do you know why?”
“Yes,” Connor says, proud of himself for figuring it out, “because it's a wig and tomorrow morning you might put a totally different color and style wig on that mannequin and then where would Kathi be?”
Connor’s only date with Kathi had been five weeks ago. She wore black jeans and a black button-up blouse—it was the only time he’d ever seen her out of her white Clinique smock, and oddly, he found he preferred the smock. She seemed distant and forlorn and a little desperate to him; they didn’t really click, but that didn’t prevent them from rolling around on her chintz sofa for a few hours, half-undressed under a moonlit window. Connor remembers her bare shoulders, her collarbones, her lips, her small breasts. But now, when he considers this flesh-and-blood woman obsessing over a plastic dummy—and okay, he thinks, this is weird, I admit—he has no desire to see Kathi, the meta-mannequin, but he’s dying to see the mannequin itself. “Let's go by and sneak a peek at it,” Connor says, but Terri looks at him like he’s lost his mind. “What's wrong with you?” she says. “It's just a damn mannequin.”
“Well,” Connor says.
His sister is staring at him. Deflated, he takes up his spoon and gazes at his concave reflection in the dull metal. His face is distorted, monster-like.
“Freak-ass,” Terri says.
Connor goes back to the mall later that afternoon, half an hour after Terri has clocked out. It’s raining. Whirlpools of yellow pollen swirl down the parking lot storm drains. Slung under his windbreaker are a Nikon loaded with 400 ASA black & white and a Pentax with color slide film. He tilts his wet face up to the rain and breathes deeply.
Inside, he approaches obliquely: through Lingerie, retreating through Sportswear, meandering the aisle across from Cosmetics, all mirrors and glass counters, white-smocked makeup technicians. Kathi is not working, he notices, and then he sees the Petites mannequin: a small, graceful thing standing with hips slightly cocked, a distant look and a bit of a Mona Lisa smile. It’s wearing a pair of white capri pants and a familiar black button-up blouse. Connor raises his Nikon, focuses and clicks. He gets off half a roll before a salesclerk asks him what he’s doing.
“I’m a friend of Kathi’s,” Connor says, backing up and shooting.
“Kathi has the day off. Is there something I can help you with?”
Connor keeps shooting. He sees shots of mannequin faces enlarged two or three times life size, blown up so big and grainy that you can’t tell them from real women. He sees pictures of piles of arms and legs and torsos. He sees himself in a canoe with his arms around a muddy mannequin, drifting out to sea. He imagines his photos framed in black, with wide white mats, hanging on a gallery wall.
“Sir. Is there something I can help you with?”
Connor keeps shooting his mannequin.
2. University Billiards
“I was new at this school,” Connor said over his shoulder.
“I hear ya,” Skeeter said.
“I didn’t know many kids. Junior high school—ninth grade and never been kissed. A bit of a late bloomer. It was at opening night for the drama club play. Even then I was a behind the scenes kind of guy. I was working lights, running the sound board.” He watched as Skeeter chalked his cue; blue dust drifted down on the worn green table. “The show was over and we were cleaning up, goofing off. The drama teacher had left early for the cast party and told me to lock up. I was sitting down cross-legged on the stage and this girl comes up, a girl I’d never seen before, and she sits right next to me and starts talking to me and next thing I know her head’s in my lap and she’s looking up at me smiling and I’m totally about to lose it.”
“Was she cute?” Skeeter asks.
“Aww, man, she was cute as a little dollbaby,” Connor told him, “curly hair and a little turned-up nose and dimples and she was wearing cutoff jeans and this halter-top thing with a bare midriff and I didn’t know what to do at all; I mean I knew she wanted me to kiss her, that was pretty apparent, but my best friend was sweeping up downstage right—”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘sweeping up’?”
“I mean literally,” Connor said, “he had a push broom and was sweeping the stage and wasn’t even trying to hide that he was watching us; I mean he was sweeping in circles and craning his neck and grinning this crazy grin at me, and there was somebody else offstage in the wings breaking down a set or something and it just wasn’t much of a venue for a first kiss.”
Skeet broke with a tremendous crack and balls scattered and caromed but nothing dropped; “Open table,” he said, and Connor stepped up and bent down and sighted and lined up his shot, still talking: “So she was lying there looking up at me and smiling and I’m just looking down at her and continuing the conversation, something inane, teenaged babble, purple people eaters or something, man, and”—Connor knocked in the two ball—“eventually she had to reach up and put her hand on the back of my head and literally pull my face down on top of hers until we were looking cross-eyed at each other and laughing”—Connor sunk the six in the side and turned to the four—“and then we were kissing, right there on stage, and it went on and on and on, like a five minute lip-lock without coming up for air or anything.” Connor sank the four and walked around the table and saw the he couldn’t reach the one or the five but could bank the three in the corner, so he did, and then came back for the one in the side. Skeet said in a girly voice, “And you thought, So this is kissing.”
“More like holy shit, Skeeter,” Connor said, “especially the way she was rolling her head around in my lap,” and Skeet gave a soft “Whoooohoo” and Connor just barely tapped the seven and it rolled and hung on the lip of the corner pocket and teetered and then fell, but he wasn’t watching; he was already stalking around the table to line up the five. “Don’t do this to me, Connor,” Skeet said, “not again, man,” but Connor just waved his cue toward the far pocket, a straight shot right down the rail, and popped it with backspin and rattled it home. “So then this girl gets up and flounces off, like all she wanted was one kiss and that was it, and she disappears and I don’t even know her name.” “Whaaaa?” Skeeter said, “man, you’re shittin’ me, you didn’t get her name?” and Connor said “I told you, man, I was new in this school and didn’t know these kids.” He called his last shot, lining up the white ball and the black ball and patting the side pocket. It was a reasonably easy shot: cut the eightball, barely kiss it, he thought, and he pulled back his cue. The eight spun into the pocket and Connor started to turn away to tell Skeet “rack ‘em,” but then he saw the cue ball rolling still, rolling straight for the corner, and—shit—there it went: scratch. Connor laid his cue across the rails, put his face in both hands, and shook his head. “Heysu Cristo,” he said.
“No help for the wicked,” Skeet says. “Rack ‘em up, my friend.”
Connor started racking. It didn’t take long since all the high balls were still on the table.
“That’s a pretty good story, though,” Skeeter said, rechalking his cue, “that first kiss story. Better than mine.”
“That’s not the whole story.”
Two hours later he was at the cast party looking for this girl. Somehow she’d gotten away from him and he was almost wondering if he’d been dreaming. Then he saw her, standing all by herself across the room; she was wearing slacks and a long-sleeved cotton blouse with every button buttoned. Connor dropped all his cool and beelined to her. “This is the hard part to tell,” he said. “I mean it’s embarrassing. I stood there talking to this girl—a girl whose name I still didn’t know—and she totally acted like she’d never seen me before. I couldn’t figure it. I kept kind of sliding her sideways without really realizing it, kind of backing her up into a corner, and finally I said something a little pathetic and disappointed, something like ‘You’re not being as nice to me as you were earlier tonight,’ and she said ‘What are you talking about?’ and, man—”
Skeeter was leaning on his cue waiting to break. He raised his eyebrows: go on.
“For the first time in my life I made a move. I just leaned down and kissed her. Talk about balls. She pulled back and she looked at me really weird and then she smiled and leaned back in and kissed me back, but not like before; it was like a deep kiss but quick, and then she said ‘I’ll be right back’ and she slipped out the door and I didn’t see her again that night.”
Skeeter turned to the table and broke with a mighty crack. High balls dropped in three pockets. “Stripers,” he said, and Connor watched him backpedal around the table, sussing out the lay. “You were new in the school,” Skeet said. “That was a given.”
Skeet leaned over the table and drew a bead on the eleven. “Twins,” he guessed. “You kissed twins without knowing it.”
The eleven bounced off the edge of the corner pocket. Connor wasn’t watching. He’d just seen his father come in, holding the heavy plate glass door wide for one of his students, a girl named Tamara Fox. They bought a rack of balls and set up two tables down. His father nodded at Connor and Connor nodded at his father.
“Your shot, man,” Skeet said.
He was not going to get hung up on this. It was the kind of weirdness he had grown used to and it only gave him pause a moment. He turned his back and did a half-orbit of the table. “What am I, low balls?”
Connor missed a bank shot on the fourball.
“Mary and Marcie McGruder,” he said, a little wistful. “Mary was the wild one. Dropped out pregnant in eleventh grade. Marcie was honor roll, student council, pre-med, all that stuff. I had no idea.”
“Connor, this is why you’re so fucked up about women, man,” Skeet said. “Don’t you see it? You got ‘em both—the virgin and the slut, the yin and the yang, man—on the same day, both vibes coming out of identical packages. It confused you—gave you unreasonable expectations. How could any one woman compete?”
“That’s pretty funny, Skeeter,” Connor said.
“You know I’m just yanking your chain here.” Skeet knocked in the twelve and turned toward the ten. “But I will say one thing, Connor. These girls were good luck for you, this Marcy and Mary. Ever since then you’ve had good luck with girls whose names start with M.” Skeet glanced up and winked. “Marcy, Mary, Melissa, Melinda—”
“—Melinda? What Melinda?”
“Miranda, I mean; that girl with the blonde hair—”
“—Michelle, two Michelles now that I think of it—damn, Connor, you don’t need any more M’s; you need to move on to some other letter of the damn alphabet.”
Skeet stopped to watch Tamara Fox bend over the table in her tight bluejeans. Connor looked too and saw his stern father watching him. He didn’t care. He was thinking Allison, Amanda . . . Ashley, Belinda, Caryl, Christine . . . Donna, Ellen, oh yeah, Candi . . . . F, who’s F? F. . . F. . . F. . . .