What We Do With Our Bodies – Stephen Mortland
June 4, 2018
Each guest arrived at an agreement with Shy privately. Some were paying, but I wasn’t. She
never asked for money from me, and I didn’t have any to offer. I slept on a couch on the porch. She told me I could sleep inside, but I preferred things the way they were.
The porch was screened in, and I easily imagined it a room of my own. The other guests returned to the house most nights after I’d already gone to sleep. I don’t think they wanted to wake me, but they didn’t try very hard to avoid it. They probably knew I wasn’t paying Shy any money to sleep on her porch, so they felt no obligation to me.
Some nights I slept through their return. Those were the nights that they opened the porch door only wide enough to squeeze through and shut it slowly so that it wouldn’t slam. After walking past the couch on the tips of their toes they opened the door to the house in the same tempered manner. They didn’t vomit on the floor near my head, and they resisted screaming obscenities at their drivers from the steps. On those nights they didn’t wake me and, instead, they found their way into my dreams.
I dreamed of them, because what else did I have to dream of? I fell asleep imagining their return, wondering when, and in what manner, I’d be woken up. I dreamed of their knotted hair. I dreamed of running my fingers through it and pulling out the twigs and leaves. I dreamed of laying them out, one-by-one, and bathing them in large metal basins with thick yellow sponges.
They were rowdy when they were at the house. Their games changed week-to-week. One week they stole clothes from one another and wore them proudly around the yard. The men paraded in evening dresses, their gorilla feet shoved into high heels, and the women wore neckties over basketball jerseys. Another week they snuck around cracking eggs on one another. I never participated. When Pete moved back in with Shy the energy of the others dissipated. They found new outlets for their antics, and the house calmed down.
Shy never went out at night. She stayed inside and decorated mannequins. Her bedroom was lined with them; at least twelve mannequins. Most of them were full models, though a few were missing their lower halves. She spent the evenings modifying them. The one that I saw most often, because of its proximity to the door of her room, was carved with a chisel. The chisel left marks that looked like vines wrapping around the blank space where the mannequin’s eye would have been so that its face looked like Mike Tyson’s.
I had been at the house for a week, maybe two. I was outside on the couch and I couldn’t sleep. I sat and watched the street. There were no cars. There were no animals. No one was walking. There were only other houses, dark and comatose. I imagined other streets, streets that came alive at night and swallowed bodies like mine.
I heard Shy through the screen door. I thought at first she was laughing. I looked inside, but I couldn’t see her. I waited, and when she didn’t stop I went in.
The door to her room was open. Mike Tyson was staring out at me. Shy sat with her back pressed against the wall. Her hands covered her nose and her mouth. She was wearing an oversized t shirt and underwear. The t shirt had the faded picture of a car on it and the text above it read SUPER CHEVY SHOW. She was doing nothing to conceal the bruising on her biceps and the big yellow and purple one on her thigh. She waved me into the room.
I felt insensitive and awkward looming over her, so I lowered myself. There was nowhere for me to place my hands, and she was closing her eyes again. I laid down and rested my head in her lap. Her thighs were cold on my cheek. They were thin and I was uncomfortable until I pulled my legs to my chest and let my head fall into the shallow valley of her lap. She stroked my hair and the back of my neck.
When her whimpering subsided I sat up, leaning on one arm. Her face was red and blotchy. She had snot on the end of her round nose. Her makeup bled, leaving black mascara icicles dangling beneath her eyes.
I helped her up, and the two of us sat on the foot of her bed. The mannequins watched us.
“They look nice,” I said.
“I hate them,” she said. “They’re never right.”
She looked around the room, wiping her nose with the back of her forearm.
“Go touch that one,” she told me.
“Go touch it?”
“Yeah, go put your hand on it.” She was pointing to a mannequin in the corner.
It was leaning against the wall, bound in tight fabric. It had a female torso. Streaks of navy paint covered the body, most prominently from the shoulders down over the breasts and onto the obliques. The paint was crudely applied in thin lines. It looked like Shy had covered her fingers in paint and ran them down the body. Feathers were stuck in the dried lines. They were the delicate down feathers stuffed in pillows and jackets. The mannequin’s face wasn’t painted, but the fabric lining the head was slashed and torn, revealing the cheap plastic underneath.
“Where should I touch it?”
“Where do you want to touch it?”
I didn’t want to touch it, but I wanted to make Shy happy. I set a hand on it’s shoulder, careful to avoid any feathers. I looked at her to see if my touching it on the shoulder made her happy. She moved across the bed to be nearer.
“Touch it somewhere else. Move your hand around on it.”
I ran my hand up and down the mannequin’s bicep. I touched it soft, not wanting to disturb the paint, and not knowing how else to touch it.
She stood and got very close to the mannequin and I.
“Pretend it’s me. Pretend I’m the mannequin, and touch it where you’d want to touch me.”
“I don’t want to touch you,” I said.
“Okay, but if you had to. If you had to touch me.”
I hesitated, my hand hovering. My palm felt hot, like the mannequin’s body was radiating heat. Somewhere behind the rivers of feathers and paint, the mannequin’s chest had sprouted blood vessels and sweat glands.
I set my hand on the mannequin’s back, but I didn’t care about touching Shy’s back. Really, I wanted to touch the bruise on her leg. The yellow one the size of a doorknob. I wanted to press on it and see if it felt any different than the rest of her leg, if it felt empty and hollow under all that yellow. I wanted to know if it hurt, and how bad it hurt.
She took my arm and lifted it off of the mannequin. I kept my body pliable. I let her move my arm and set my hand on the mannequin’s stomach. She set her hand on the back of mine and began pressing. I felt the slight silent cracking of the plastic under the pressure of our hands.
Her tears were back, quietly pulling the mascara still further down her cheeks. She stepped away.
“Keep your hand there,” she said, her voice measured and calm. “Press on it. Are you pressing on it?” I nodded. I could feel my wrist digging into the mannequin. It’s belly was opening up, swallowing my palm. I was breaking it.
“I’m breaking it,” I said.
“That’s okay, keep pressing.”
It made a noise, an audible crack, and I pressed harder. The mannequin was shoved up against the wall. I wanted to tear into it. I wanted to break it. I wanted to throw my body into the mannequin. I wanted our two bodies to become one—flesh and plastic forged together and unrecognizable.
My hand shot through, and I lost my balance. The edge of the shattered plastic sliced my arm and my blood was on the mannequin’s waistline. It looked like it was drawn on with a crayon; it didn’t look like blood. As I left the room, Shy was kneeling in front of the mannequin running her fingers along the newly formed cavern in its belly.
It was ten minutes before she came out and sat on the porch. When she looked at me, I saw she had eyes like a sick baby, like a baby that had just forgotten its pain. She sat next to me on the couch, crossing her legs and burying her feet beneath her knees. The couch swallowed her and made her appear even smaller than she was. Her skin was wet, and her hair was damp. It was pushed back and pressed down on her scalp. She smiled at me and looked out at the street.
“What do you think of this place?” she asked.
“It’s not very beautiful.”
“No, it’s not.”
She lifted her hand off my knee and set her palm on my cheek. With her thumb she rubbed the skin beneath my eye. I felt proud, like I’d done something admirable.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
After she’d gone inside the smell of her sweat lingered and I let myself fall back across the couch. I closed my eyes. I listened to the night. I tried to find something to focus my attention on. All I could hear was the faint hum of a street light and the occasional sound of bugs flying headlong into a window pane.