Barry, the head janitor and my direct supervisor, told me as he took me down in the service elevator that mannequins sleep standing up and with their eyes open.
“Ha ha,” I said.
He looked at me and snapped his fingers. “What, you think this is a joke I’m telling you? You think there’s a punchline coming? I’m serious,” he said.
“No, sir, I don’t think it’s a joke.” This was my first night shift and already I wasn’t making a good impression. “I’m sorry.” I cleared my throat.
“I’m just kidding,” he said and phantom punched me in the gut as the door opened and he led me up the service hallway past a flickering fluorescent light. “Don’t mind me or my bad sense of humor. Lately I’ve been known for short bursts of terrible rage. If you’re caught in one of these crossfires, don’t take it personally. I’m not a bad boss, generally speaking, and I think most of the others would agree, except for maybe Crystal, who’s a bitch, but anyway, just so you know, I think my medication is off.”
And then after making sure I had the keys and knew how to lock up and set the alarm, he left me at the janitor’s closet with a final word of warning, “Watch that you don’t wake the mannequins.” And with one wild shriek of laughter, he walked back down the hallway past the blinking strobe of the fluorescent, disappeared into the darker shadows like some sort of devilish apparition summoned out of my subconscious, or whatever, and was gone.
As promised, Barry threw a fit at the end of my second week of work, spraying spittle into my eyeball as he got an inch away from my face and yelled for fifteen minutes about not vacuuming the lobby until after, AFTER, AFTERAFTERAFTER the window washers came in at 4 AM every Thursday morning to blow in a bunch of leaves and shit from off the street.
Otherwise, I had no real problems until one early Thursday morning. In a hurry to get all of my cleaning duties done so that I could vacuum the lobby last, after the arrival of the window washers, I accidentally wrapped the vacuum cleaner cord around one of the legs of a male mannequin in the display case on the corner of Taylor and SE Washington. The cord left a blackish rubbery smudged line down the mannequin’s tan slacks.
I got a bucket of soapy water from the janitor’s closet and tried to dab the stain from his slacks, but I only made it worse. I decided to wash the pants in the industrial laundry machine in the basement, but when I took them off, I was saw that he had no penis. He had no nothing down there but smooth white fiberglass. This disturbed me in a way that was most difficult to understand at the time.
When I later tried to tell my girlfriend about it, waking her up that same morning when I returned home from my shift, she was confused.
“Don’t you get it?” I said. “It was really sad for me.”
“No,” she said. “I guess I really don’t get it.” She put on her robe. Her hair was ratted in back. She sat in a chair in the corner to pack the bong. She was smoking too much these days. Since her second miscarriage, in fact, I couldn’t remember her ever not being high. She took a hit and said, “And, like, you’re sad because why?”
“Like,” I said, “I didn’t know what I was seeing, but what I was seeing I knew I didn’t like.”
After that incident, I started really noticing the mannequins. They didn’t have heads, or at least some of them. They had nippleless breasts. They had no genitals. They couldn’t procreate or even masturbate. Some of them didn’t have feet. I didn’t have the best gait myself, perhaps, but I could walk. I had feet. I still had my balls and a brain. And I felt sorry for them.
Again I wanted to talk with my girlfriend about this. I woke her from her drugged slumber one morning after my shift to tell her what happened that early morning during my shift. It took her a while to understand what I was saying. There was a large slobber stain on the pillow.
“I’ve been setting him free,” I said.
“Wait, hold on.” She got up, and I followed her into the kitchen where she took an ice tray out of the freezer, cracked it to pull out three ice cubes to put into the bong, and then she went over to the sink to pour in some water. She sat at the table, found a lighter in the pocket of her robe, took a hit, held her breath and coughed. “You let the mannequin—”
“—Randy.” I sat down across from her.
“Randy? The mannequin?”
“And you realize that’s also your name?”
“Of course. It’s a strange coincidence, yes, but it’s not the weirdest thing.”
“The weirdest thing is what, that you let Randy… go?”
“No. I did let him go, yes, but that’s not the weirdest thing. I set him out back next to Shipping & Receiving. And when I went back later, at the end of my shift, he was standing there waiting to be let in as usual.”
“Wait, hold on. You mean you’ve let him go more than once?”
“Yes, along with the others.”
“I’m not saying I’m like that Matt Damon character on Good Will Hunting. I understand I’m not going to be solving math formulas during my shift or nothing, but I can see when something is not right. And this is not right, mannequins standing there all day and night, without the notion that there’s more to life than displaying themselves for the world to visually, virtually, rape.”
“So you free them, nightly, behind Shipping & Receiving, and then put them back into their display cases when they return?”
“Yes, exactly. But the weirdest thing is that this morning Randy was standing there in the cold with the others, as usual, dressed to kill, but he’d also come back with a girlfriend.”
“Of course. It wasn’t a real girl. And the girlfriend brought with her a headless baby mannequin in a white turtleneck and Rudolf sweater with a blinking red nose.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet! And what did you do with them?”
“What could I do? If Barry found that I was harboring mannequins in the supply closet, he would spray spittle in my eye. Or worse, I could lose my job. I didn’t know what to do, so I put them through the compactor.”
“Oh, God,” she said. She took another long pull on the bong, rippling the water, and coughed hard when she was done. She didn’t seem well. Her face was bloated, puffy. I used to like looking into that face but now, honestly, it was the last place I wanted to look into. Outside the window behind her, hard, icy rain was pelting the glass.
“We can try again,” I whispered.
And then she began to sob.
“Come on, baby. Please. Maybe our story is not through.” But of course as soon as I said that, I knew that it was.