Short Story — “Lucy”

There’s one scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in Chase’s Department Store in the variant town of Colbyville.  They approach a mannequin, and Mitchell remarks that mannequins have always given him the creeps.  Marc, ever the logical one, asks him why on earth that would be.  Mannequins are merely lifeless shells, after all.  How can they give anyone the creeps?  Then Marc reaches out, touches the mannequin, and abruptly pulls his hand away.

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What did he feel?  What did he sense?  Was there something more?  Something beyond the fiber glass and lifeless, unblinking eyes?  I know that I, for one, share Mitchell’s view.  I know mannequins are not alive.  Of course I know that.  And yet . . .  And yet . . .

indexmannequins

With that in mind, a few years ago I wrote a short story called “Lucy,” which features as one of its main characters–you guessed it, a mannequin.

I hope you enjoy this short story . . .

“Lucy”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

*******************

Edward peered through the store window, wondering if he was out there.  Surely he would not come this morning.  It was raining too hard.  Besides, he wouldn’t keep coming indefinitely, would he?  He’d have to give it up at some point.

Unceasing, metronomic, the rain pelted the window glass.  Checking the sky, Edward saw that there was no sky.  Gray clouds, fat, swollen with water, hung over the street like malignant tumors.  Who knew when the sun might show itself again?

Confident that the old man wouldn’t come in this weather, Edward turned away from the window.  Is everything in order? he asked himself.  Colleen out, Jodie in, Matthew coming in late.  He scratched his chin, looking like a man contemplating the mystery of the ages.  And in a way, he was.  It was hard being a shop owner these days.  Two national chains had come to the area last year, and his customer base was slowly eroding.  He tried cutting prices, but he couldn’t compete with the big box stores.  The only things he had in his favor were the loyalty of longtime patrons and his commitment to providing top-notch and personalized customer service.  Too often, though, it felt like he was sliding down a muddy cliff, slowly, inexorably, searching for handholds that didn’t exist.

There was a knock on the shop door.  Edward looked and saw him—the old man.  He was not able to see him clearly in the gloomy October dawn, but it was him, all right.  He’d come after all.

Edward raced to the door and unlocked it.  He didn’t particularly want the old man to keep coming like this every morning, before the store opened, but he didn’t want to see him—or anyone—stand in that miserable chill and rain either.

“Hey, you don’t even have an umbrella!” Edward said when the man came inside.  “You walked all this way in the rain without an umbrella?”

The man nodded.  “Lucy’s worth it.”

Edward shut and relocked the door.  The shop would not open for another twenty-five minutes.  He noticed across the street that Mr. Henderson had arrived at his deli—“Henderson’s Old-Fashioned Deli” was written in large white letters on the window.  Mr. Henderson inserted a key in the door lock, turned it quickly, pushed open the door, then rushed inside, eager to get out of the rain.

“Hey, Mr. Mertinak, you want a cup of hot coffee?” Edward offered.  The old man was shivering.  “I just brewed a pot in my office.”

The man shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I just want to see Lucy.”

“You sure get here early, Mr. M.  If you’re not careful, you’ll beat me, and on a morning like this, that means you’ll be standing in the rain.  And it’s gettin’ cold, too, October and all.”

The old man—Mr. Mertinak—waved his hand dismissively.  “What is cold to a man like me?  I would walk to the Arctic to visit Lucy.  And the rain wouldn’t touch me if you had an awning.  When will you get one?”

Mr. Mertinak had asked that before, and Edward didn’t like it.  An awning would be nice, sure it would—the hardware store next door had one—but it cost money.  Not a fortune, but even a modest sum was beyond Edward’s means at the moment.

“Why do you look so, so despairing?” Mr. Mertinak asked.  “Lucy didn’t run away, did she?”

Edward sighed.  He had given up trying to reason with the old man weeks ago.  “No.  She’s right where you left her yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.  But I, well, I—”

Mr. Mertinak’s eyebrows furrowed.  Suddenly, he looked like a principal about to dress down a student.  “You what?  Is Lucy okay?”

“Sure.  I mean, I changed her outfit and her hair.  The holiday season’s coming up, and I needed something different.”

“Her hair?”  Mr. Mertinak’s eyes were wide.  “I need to see her.”

“Follow me,” Edward said, and they went past racks of coats and ties, to the back of the store.  On the way, Edward thought of that first day, that first encounter.

It had been late in the afternoon on a September Monday, and every worker in the shop wanted the business day to end.  The weather was perfect, with clear skies, lazy late-summer sunshine, and a cool breeze coming in off the lake.  Even the customers, what few there were, seemed eager to leave the store.  That’s when Edward noticed an old man standing on the sidewalk, staring through the window.  The man’s face was pressed against the glass, mashing his nose and lips.  Edward thought, fleetingly, that the man looked like a Martian from an old science fiction movie he had seen when he was a kid.

When the man didn’t leave, when he just kept his face pressed against the window, Edward figured something was wrong.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he drunk?  He didn’t want to know, but he needed to deal with the situation before it carried on any longer.

He walked outside.  The man continued to stare through the window, oblivious to his presence.

He cleared his throat.  When the man did not respond, Edward tapped his shoulder.  The man’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck, and he glared at Edward through bloodshot eyes.  So he had been drinking.

“Sir,” Edward began, “I’m sorry.  But you really shouldn’t stare through the window that way.  Some of my staff are getting nervous.”

The old man just looked at him.  His breath smelled of whiskey.  Grizzled stubble coated his cheeks.  A band of teenagers walked past them on the sidewalk, giggling.

“So, if you don’t mind . . .” Edward pressed on, trying to word things just right.  You never could tell what an old guy like this might do.  “. . . please just be on your way.”  He was about to go back into the shop, but the man grabbed his arm.  Edward pulled it away, as if touched by a leper.

“Where’d you get her?” the man said.  The whiskey on his breath was very strong, but his words were not at all slurred.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Edward observed two of his employees looking out the window.  They were whispering to each other.  He boiled.  They should have been attending to the customers, not watching this sideshow.

“Her!” the old man said, loud enough for a passerby to look at them.  “Where’d you get her?”  He pointed to a mannequin just inside the store window.  “That’s my wife.  That’s Lucy.  Let me go in and talk to her!”

Edward was starting to feel a little nervous.  He had been in the retail business for years and had seen a lot of strange things, but he had never encountered anything like this.  “Sir, that’s just a mannequin,” he said, talking slowly, as if to a backward child.  “If it looks like your wife, it’s only a coincidence.”

“Let me talk to her!  I don’t know how you found her or how you made her young again, but I need to go in and speak with her!”

Edward tried to talk sense into the man, but after a couple of wasted minutes, he understood nothing was going to work.  It was either argue with the old nutcase the rest of the afternoon, leave him outside to stare in his shop, or let him in.  He hoped if he let him in, he’d say a few things to the mannequin and leave.

“Okay,” he said.  “You win.  Let’s go in and you can talk to the mannequin if it makes you happy.  But please try not to disturb the peace, okay, sir?”

The man didn’t respond.  He only stared at the mannequin through the window.  “Lucy,” he whispered to himself.

Once inside, the old man went straight to the mannequin and took its hand in his.  “Lucy, dear, dear Lucy, how did you get here?” he said.  The mannequin stared out the window, at the sidewalk and Henderson’s deli, and the pedestrians who walked past.

Edward went to the cash register.  Colleen, his top clerk, was there.

“Old guy’s batty,” she said.

“You’re telling me.  I tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn’t budge.  I hope he doesn’t stay long.”  He saw the old man kiss the mannequin’s hand, then whisper something in its ear.  “He thinks the mannequin’s his wife.”

Colleen rolled her eyes.  A customer came to the register.  Colleen rang up the order and bagged the merchandise.  “Sorry about that,” she said, glancing at the man.

The customer, a middle-aged woman with a long, hook-like nose, said, “You know who that is?  That’s Mark Mertinak.  He lives up my way.  Used to go to our church.”

“You know that man?” Edward said.

“Sure.  His wife just died, a couple weeks ago.  It’s been rough on ‘im.  They were inseparable.  Well, I think it’ll blow over.  He’s a decent enough old guy—just lonely.  Thanks for the sweaters.  Can’t find a deal this good at those cookie-cutters up the road, huh?”  She smiled and left.

A half hour went by, but Mr. Mertinak still had not gone.  Other customers stared at him.  A few came up to Edward and asked him to get rid of the old man.  One young lady complained that she had her little girl with her and she didn’t appreciate having her daughter witness such a spectacle.  Then she left, without buying a thing.  Edward knew he needed to get rid of the man.  Inwardly groaning, he approached him.

“Look, mister,” he said, “we’re gonna close soon, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be leaving, okay?”  They weren’t closing for an hour still, but maybe the old man hadn’t read the hours posted on the door.  He had been so wrapped up in his imaginings, that seemed likely enough.

“It’s all wrong,” Mr. Mertinak said.  “The outfit.  Lucy didn’t wear clothes like this.  She was modest, a lady.”

Edward looked at the mannequin.  It wore short red shorts and a white tank top.  He had outfitted it with those just yesterday, hoping to draw attention to the last of the summer clothes he had in his inventory.  So far, only five pairs of shorts and six tank tops had sold.  The other mannequins were already wearing their fall attire.

“Well, this is very temporary,” Edward said.  “I’ll be changing the clothes on this mannequin by next week.”  Why in the world was he justifying himself to this insane old man?

“And her eyes, they were blue, not black, like this.  But everything else is perfect.  How did you find Lucy?  How did you make her young again?”

“Look, Mr.—Mertinak, is it?  This isn’t your wife.  I’m sorry you lost her, I really am, but this is only a mannequin.  It isn’t alive.”  Edward tapped on the mannequin’s forearm.  “Hear that?  That’s not the sound real skin makes.  Now, please, sir, if you’ll leave.  We need to close.”

Thankfully, Mr. Mertinak agreed.  Edward breathed a sigh of relief.  At the door, the old man said, “I never walk downtown.  Why did I today?  Because Lucy was here.  She directed me somehow, and now, that I know she’s here, I will come back.  I will be back tomorrow.”

Before Edward could protest, Mr. Mertinak had left.

He did come the next day, and the next, and he never stopped coming.  The dwindling customer base dwindled a little more. . . .

One day, after the old man had been haunting his shop for a week, Edward went to Henderson’s for lunch.  He went to the deli counter, where a sour-faced Mr. Henderson greeted him.

“Hey, Ed.  What’ll it be, the usual?”  Edward nodded.  Pastrami on whole wheat, topped with Swiss cheese.  You couldn’t beat it.  “Hey, you better watch it, bud,” Mr. Henderson said as he fixed Edward’s sandwich.  “I’m losin’ business on account a you.  That creep keeps talkin’ to the babe in your window, and I’ll tell ya, you’re clearin’ people outta here, man.  You’ll send us all packin’.”

Edward told him he would deal with the matter and that he was exaggerating.  People weren’t being scared away.

“Yeah they are,” Mr. Henderson said as he wrapped the sandwich in white deli paper, then secured it with a rubber band.  “Oh, sure, there’s sickos who like watchin’ other sickos, but I know of at least ten people who don’t wanna pass by your store no more.  Scares the kids, they say.  Hey, it scares me, too, Ed.  Old whacko talkin’ to a mannequin like it’s really his dead wife.  It’s sick.  Get rid of him.  I’ll see to it if you don’t.”

“I’m working on it,” Edward said, wishing he had bought his lunch elsewhere.

The best he could come up with was allowing Mr. Mertinak to come early, before the store opened.  Mertinak would have some time with the mannequin, then he’d need to leave no later than ten minutes before business hours began.  He told the old man that good customers were scarce enough.  He did not need them taking their business to the chains.  Mr. Mertinak was surprisingly agreeable, and Edward hoped the early routine would grow wearisome; then the old man might stay away for good.

This dogged Edward.  He could have simply barred Mr. Mertinak from his store.  He had that right.  And if Mertinak came and mashed his face against the front window again, he could get him arrested for trespassing or loitering.  That’s what Henderson would do, for sure.  But he didn’t want to be like Mr. Henderson.

As they walked to the rear of the store, Edward thought back a week, when he had moved the mannequin out of the display window.

“Why’d you take Lucy away?” Mr. Mertinak had wanted to know.  Edward could smell last night’s liquor on his breath.

“I didn’t,” Edward responded, hating that he had to explain his business methods to the old man.  “I just moved her to another section of the store.  I do that with all the mannequins from time to time.”

“Lucy deserves to be in the window always,” Mertinak said, but then he had dropped it.

This morning, Edward hoped the old man would be less disturbed by the new wig and outfit.

They reached the mannequin, surrounded by racks of ladies’ coats and scarves.

“Oh, what have you done to Lucy?” Mertinak said.  He reached up and gently touched the wig.  “You made her hair red.  She never had red hair.  It was brown!  Impossible.  Change it back!”

“Mr. M, I change all the wigs twice a year.  I never used to, but Colleen got me to do it.  She says the variety is good, that it makes everything look new and different, even the clothes.  So I tried it.  Can’t say it’s worked so good, though.”  He shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Mertinak stared at the wig for at least a minute.  Then he said, “Hmm, now that I think of it, Lucy sometimes did say she’d like a different hair color.  She never said red specifically, but it does kind of suit her.  She could be spontaneous when the spirit moved her.  Yes, yes.  It looks fine!  Just fine.  Lucy could make green hair look beautiful, you know.”

Edward just smiled.  He knew by now that the best approach with the old man was to let him talk.  And while he never would have admitted it to anyone, Edward sort of liked Mertinak, after a fashion.  Sure, it was eccentric talking to a mannequin, but Mertinak said he’d been married to Lucy for fifty-three years.  It was no wonder, then, that he would be crushed by her passing, or that he might be tempted to grasp at straws and bend reality to suit his needs.

“Did I tell you how beautiful Lucy was?”  Mertinak asked, gently fingering the mannequin’s lips.  Vacant, empty eyes that stared at a nearby slacks rack greeted the touch with indifference.

Edward nodded.  But he knew the old man would continue anyway.  He checked his wristwatch.  They still had a few minutes.

“She could outshine the sun,” Mertinak said, closing his eyes.  His fingers still stroked the mannequin’s lips.  “I fell in love with her instantly.  She was so much more beautiful than anything I had ever seen.  And her spirit.  Pure as the first snow that comes falling down in November.”  A single tear snaked its way down the old man’s cheek, falling to the carpeted floor.  “Lucy,” he said.  “How I love you, Lucy.”  He reopened his eyes and stared at the mannequin.  “Red hair becomes you, darling.”

Edward cleared his throat.  This was a bit much, even by Mertinak’s standards.  “I’m afraid it’s about that time, Mr. M,” he said.  Better to cut things short before they got out of hand.  “Need to get the store ready.”

Edward half expected Mertinak to protest, but the widower just nodded, then kissed the mannequin on the lips.  “I shall see you tomorrow morning, love,” he said.  “And we can reminisce.  Remember our Thanksgivings, darling?  And our Christmases?  Christmas is coming up, you know—just a couple of months away.  But don’t worry.  I’ll buy you something special.  Just like the gold necklace I bought you in 1977.  My, didn’t you scold me for being frivolous!  But it was nothing, dearest.  I would buy you an entire nation if I could.  Just be patient.  Christmas is coming.”

The old man kissed the mannequin again, then turned away.  He smiled at Edward.  “Thank you,” he said.  “Same time tomorrow morning?”

Edward nodded.  “You sure you’ll be all right, walking back home in this rain?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders.  “What’s rain to a man like me?”

They reached the front door.  Through the glass, a scowling Mr. Henderson stood in the gloom, protected from the rain by a black umbrella.

Opening the door, Edward walked outside, followed by Mertinak.

“Mr. Henderson,” Edward said.  “Odd seeing you here.”

“I need to talk to this old creep,” Henderson said.  “Since you won’t.”

Edward took a step toward Henderson.  Rain slammed into him, making it hard to be brave.  “You leave this to me, Henderson.  It’s my store.”

With surprising speed, Henderson pushed Edward, forcefully enough that he slammed into the shop’s window.  “Get out of my way!  You ain’t man enough to do it, so I will!”  Henderson’s lips twisted into the snarl of a predator.  Then he turned on the old man.  “You!”  He planted his finger in Mertinak’s chest, hard.  Mertinak stumbled backwards, but didn’t fall.  “You get this straight, you miserable old scum.  Your wife is dead, do you hear me?  Dead!”

“That’s enough,” Edward interrupted.  He had been caught off guard by Henderson’s appearance and aggressiveness, but now he was ready.  “Leave, right now, or I call the cops.”

Henderson glared at him.  There was a challenge in that glare, and Edward did not wish to meet it.  “On what charges?  This ain’t your property.  It’s a sidewalk, open to everyone, and when they come walkin’ in front of your stupid store, what do they see?  A no-good old whacko who talks to a hunk of fiber glass and thinks it’s his dead wife.  Well, this is where it stops.”  He looked at Mertinak again.  The old man was soaking wet.  “You old sicko, your wife is dead, dontcha get it?  You’ve been talkin’ to a mannequin, a freakin’ mannequin!  An’ your scarin’ business away.  That’s why Ed here don’t let you come to the store no more while customers are around.  But I’m around, see, and I don’t wanna see you no more.  She’s dead, old man, dead!  Get it through your thick, drunk skull, and don’t ever come back here!  You ain’t wanted around here.  You got it?”

“You’re way out of line,” Edward said.  “You have no right to threaten him.”

Mertinak held up a hand.  “It’s all right,” he said softly.  Edward didn’t like the look in the old man’s eyes.  It was as if someone had turned off a switch in his brain, shutting out the light.  “He’s right.  I am an old fool.”  He looked straight at Henderson.  “But I’m not as much a fool as you think, young man.  I know my Lucy is gone.  I know.  I didn’t need you to tell me.  I know it every day, first thing, when I wake up in bed alone.  I know it every night when I reach for her and she isn’t there.  But in this store, I could pretend I was with her again.  I could pretend so hard, it seemed she was really here.  And don’t you see?  That’s all there is anymore.  I’m very old.  I didn’t think an old man’s pretending would cause anyone harm.  But I see I was wrong.  I’ll be on my way.”  He took a few steps.

“Mr. M, wait!”  Edward caught up with him.  “It doesn’t have to end like this.  Henderson has no control over my store.  You can come back!”

“Don’t you try it!” Henderson snarled behind them.  Edward could hear the pitter-patter of rain hitting the deli owner’s umbrella.

“I’ll be on my way,” the old man said again, and he walked away, along the sidewalk.

Edward stared after him as he retreated, watching Mertinak’s figure slowly melt into the surrounding atmosphere, until man and rain, human and morning became indistinguishable.  It seemed that the gloom had swallowed him.

“You’ll thank me later,” Henderson said.  He was standing next to Edward now.  “Rotten old man.  Lush.  Better off without him.  He should just die and get it over with.”

Edward turned away from Henderson and, without a word, went back into the store.

The next morning, upon arriving at the store early, Edward wondered if Mr. M might turn up.  The old man seemed so defeated yesterday, but maybe a good night’s sleep had reenergized him.  He hoped so.  He didn’t want Henderson to have the final word on the matter.

But Mr. Mertinak didn’t come.

Edward still held out hope for the next morning, but Mertinak didn’t come then, either.  When a week elapsed, and Mertinak failed to show, Edward grudgingly acknowledged the truth.  Instinctively, he started to check the obituaries in the newspaper.  He didn’t have to for very long.  The first week of December, Mark Mertinak’s name appeared.  Aged eighty, it said, died of natural causes.

That whole day, Edward felt depressed, as if he had lost something important in his life.  This puzzled him.  Had the old man meant so much to him?  He didn’t think that was it, not exactly, anyway.  But something had meant a great deal to him, something that had been gradually eroding and withering for years, yet struggling to survive against the odds.  Whatever it was, it had died right along with old Mr. M.

The day after reading of Mr. Mertinak’s passing, the first heavy snow of the season fell on the holiday-bedecked downtown street.  In the predawn stillness, silence surrounding him like a soundproof glove, Edward smiled at the mannequin.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said.  “Ready for the prime spot again?”  He paused for a moment, as if expecting some response.  Then he carried it to the front display window and set it down.  It was dressed in a knee-length winter coat, a scarf, and boots.  He was about to walk away, but he took note of something.  The mannequin had a sad face.  Most of his other mannequins had perpetual smiles, or at the very least, pleasant expressions.  Come winter, spring, summer, or fall, regardless of what happened in the outside world, they would appear cheerful, ready to please.  But not this mannequin, not Lucy.  He’d looked at it countless times, but somehow the somber expression had never registered with him before.  Prior to this morning, familiarity with the mannequin must have blinded him to it.

He left the mannequin’s side, needing to attend to other matters before Colleen and Matthew came.  But he turned around, as if pulled by a magnet, and looked at the mannequin again.

Had that mannequin looked so sad before?  He shook his head.  Of course it had.  It must have.  Mannequins’ expressions don’t change.  But later that day, as he glanced at Lucy again, he wasn’t so sure.

Staring lifelessly out the window at the silent, falling snow, the mannequin almost appeared to be mourning.

***************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Other Side of Ugly
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 22:31:38

    You are such a great writer. I am reading today. Yahoo!!!

    Reply

  2. seeker
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 03:24:31

    You have the gift of writing Mike. It’s a beautiful short story. “Captivated me till the last word.

    Reply

  3. ponderingspawned
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 17:03:52

    This is stunning.

    Reply

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