The girl’s mother paused, crouched in a shrill laugh, totes and purse scraping the pavement.  “Hilarity!” she shrieked into her cell.  “Damn, you’re funny!”  The girl shrank away; she hated these moments.

          It was the middle of a dark, coal-gray Saturday afternoon, a routine excursion.  Jane, nine, almost ten, and her ma, a tall, sloppy broad with things - tubes of lip gloss, butterscotch candies, tampons - always spilling out of pockets and pouches.  They had been slug-slogging through department stores to browse, to buy: scarves, baubles, bangles.  “It’s all about how to accessorize, Janey.  How to dazzle.”

         Jane had heard it all before and yet could not muster a shred of damn about schmancy crap, about that flash at wrist, at throat.  She was observant instead; a witness.  As the mother continued her yip-yawp-yap, Jane coolly pivoted on one boot heel towards a plate glass window, to the display in it.  There were cardboard cartons of body parts: legs, arms, hands, feet, a torso, all pale peachy-pink, hard plastic, textured as if with slight goosebumps.  A young man was kneeling there, and in his lap was a head with sculpted hair and expressionless face.  He glanced sideways at Jane and it seemed both sinister and goofy.  She turned again to the mother.  “Shit,” this ma, all irk and jerk, was saying.  “Fuck, piss.”  She had dropped a tote and its contents were strewn across the pavement; she squatted and lunged at a small box as it bounced on its corners towards the gutter.  “Help with this, Janey.”  But Jane stood apart, out of the flow of other people who were hurrying on, occupied.  

                                                            *     *     *

       It was his first day on the job.  An acquaintance had tipped his name into the ear of HR and, after a urine test and criminal clearance, he was hired to assemble mannequins. It would do until something else came along, though what that something else was he couldn’t exactly say.  After a hasty indoctrination in an airless room with a cheerless pantsuit, he dollied cartons out of the basement to a vacant display window; he unpacked body parts, studied the instructions: pin of thigh to socket of torso; pin of ankle to socket of calf.  It had a taut logic, wonderfully at odds with his life, all kink and muck.

      He was not to blame, was he?  Okay, yes, he snorted as he fumbled an arm.  It was true he had an icy heart, but hey, he was an only child born in rancor, parents always in a vicious snit, circling around on the yellow linoleum, menacing one another with kitchen knives.  So I’m cold, he told the girl he had pursued, but this didn’t tally; she wasn’t keen on him after all and with a shrug and a flip of her ponytail, she walked away.

      So be it.  Plenty elsewhere.  This was a big, big city.  A party tonight.  The same guy who had led him to this job had invited him and he was sure, why not.  A dip into awkwardness, but some girls were drawn to it, oddly.  Girls who cornered him, brayed or cooed at him with the usual:  who are you?, who are you, who are you?  A chance to score, but he had become pre-pube squirmy, after his heart-lashing, and would scamper back to his dismal room.

       As he knelt and inspected a neck socket, movement beyond the plate glass caught his eye: a tall woman, frowsy-ish, bent double, yarking into a cell, and a little girl, plaid skirt and leather jacket, raven hair in a severe bob, sad, half-cringing.  This girl suddenly turned and looked directly at him.  He flinched; the dark gaze had cut him.

                                                          *     *     *

     “Janey, honey, don’t be a toad.”  Barked as she snapped shut her cell and spun within the debris of the dropped tote.  “Did I give birth to a toad?”  This was announced with a burlesque flail to all these people, these people!, bustling around.

       But Jane had locked onto the guy in the picture window putting a body together.  He glanced at her and seemed to shudder.  Ha!, thought Jane; ha!, ha! as the mother continued her panicky scramble.  A moment, a flash, then the guy bent to his task.

     “Janey, please!  You ingrate!”  The mother now looming, her throat and jaw flushed, hot pink.  Self-absorbed city-dwellers involved in their own plots and dilemmas were not the least concerned with Jane and the daft ma.  This ma muttered curses and Jane snarled, “What?”  She was pleased with this moment, its panache; she dipped back towards the window, hoping the guy (whom she now deemed cute) had noticed, then jutted her chin and said again, “What?”

       Pique soured into surrender and the mother crumpled to the pavement.  Curious.  Jane had heard schoolyard chatter about neurotic episodes, of classmates’ parents, investment bankers and fashion editors who had lost their marbles and were whisked away to swanky funny farms.  Jane pondered, in a lackadaisical way, if this was to become an unhappy incident, if this rotten soul would get shipped away in a posh van to slurp kale smoothies and commune with squirrels and then slip back into the city on a cushion of pills.  It happened; it was almost a matter of juvenile pride, having a damaged parent; it was chic, if niftily twisted.

      Jane couldn’t quash her smirk, but she made sure it slid out of the mother’s sight (a smirk meant punishment, some joy thwarted); the smirk alighted on the guy in the display who had now completed a mannequin and was propping it up on a slender steel rod.

                                                         *     *     *

       This kid out on the pavement had turned to him again; she mouthed a sharp monosyllable, thrust her chin, leered.  He had been a kid once, not long ago, though it seemed so.  His scant memories of childhood put him on the edges of parental skirmishes; he was an anonymous thing, and then, whoosh, here he was, an adult, or adult-ish.  He had come from across the river, not so far actually.  He had been to the city on school field trips, to museums of art and natural history and astronomy and these were always agonizingly itchy, with some female classmate seated alongside him on the bus, her breath on him, breath of bubble gum and weed, and the knock-bang of kneecaps, a blend of flirt and ick and in it he was lost, boyishly perplexed.  Now he was here, here in this window.

      He steadied the mannequin, but gave it no pose (that was someone else’s job, the smartsy girls would clothe it, give it haughty, jaunty angles).  He checked the time; his shift would end in twenty minutes, easily killed with diddle-dawdle.  With a final glance at the weird kid out on the pavement, he flattened the cardboard cartons and exited the display.  Taking the employee elevator, he sunk into the guts of the department store, flung the cartons into a recycling bin.  Others were on break, hunched around tables, chatting, texting, spooning yogurt; sales ladies, pinched, sly, outfitted in natty garb and sleekly coiffed.  He, a lowly, was invisible to them, but he was glad of it.

      He frittered away the final tick-tocks, then punched out, and emerged onto the avenue.  The smell of it, the wondrous stink of this city!  Leafy-green and chocolatey and cement-ish and yet too a sweaty shittiness.  And the noise: jackhammers and honking horns and the burble of people doing what they were doing.  It was his environment, more or less, and he reveled in it, if timidly.  And so: on!  Having learned the trick of long strides with shoulders sideways, he cruised the three dozen blocks to the East Village, to his rat-hole.

     He climbed the steps of the crumbling brownstone and slipped his key into the wobbly lock.  It was a hushed hour, mid-afternoon, neighbors out or asleep, though he heard disco music, a soft bump, coming out of the lair of the drag queen (who was, no doubt, primping and preening for the evening).  Into his own room now, a mere slot, cluttered, rank.  He flopped onto his narrow bed and pleaded with sleep, but it only teased, and he lay fussily alert.  His mind zig-zagged into tonight’s party: to be or not to be himself?  But that self was a mishap with no touch of suave.  The word purpose scrolled his synapses; I am here on purpose.  No use slinking back to the suburbs of Newark.  He was here to earn a double major in chemistry and poetry: there were basic elements in poetry and a lyrical essence in chemistry.  Or maybe this was all wrong and he should become a goony accountant.  

      He scrunched and flipped, a snooze eluding him.  Why?, what is it?  That glum and too chichi little girl on the pavement, beyond the window pane.  Spooky, sad.  Not my beeswax, he thought.  But he sensed that she was making something of him.  

                                                             *     *     *

      “Hellacious, as usual,” said Jane’s mother to the father who could not have cared less, but would have to hear its pitchy recitative anyway.  “These shopgirls!  Useless!  And guess who we bumped into.  Betsy!  All blithering blab, as usual.  But we escaped, didn’t we, Janey?  We fled into a haven of purses.  And so, looky-look!”  Out of a tote, she hauled an enormous handbag of alligator leather dyed fuchsia, with loopy handles.  “Gauche is the fad now.  High-end tacky!”

      The father was a broker with fantasies of a tropical island, of a lazy slog from a neatly shabby hut to a coconut palm to a blissful dip in the ocean.  He slumped into a kitchen chair.  Jane skipped to him and perched on his knee.  He was not crazy about her, as she madly wished, but he bounced his knee so she could play giddy-up.  He calculated the cost of wife, kid: the maintenance.  But the company, quaintly dowdy, frowned upon bachelorhood and always (always!) were advancing family men.  So: wife, kid-a-roo, though he was entirely done with them, the shrew and the replica shrew.

      Jane’s glee, even if a bit fakey, withered suddenly and she jumped the bucking knee and scampered into the hallway and into her room.  Slam! went the door, so the parents would understand: you suck!  She sprawled on her bed, frazzled, but rabidly alert, the day of power-shopping amok in her brain.  The random flashes swirled around the guy assembling the mannequin.  She imagined him lonely, totally lousy with loneliness.  She was becoming writerly.

                                                           *     *     *

     He heaved his sad self out of bed and traipsed to the communal bathroom.  It was the usual mess, residue of powders and paints, the reek of cologne and chagrin.  He twisted the crusty faucet of the sink and splashed murky water onto his face and neck, but couldn’t avoid a glimpse of himself in the mirror, his wan pallor, his eyes so gloomy, leery.

     He would put himself together as if he were a mannequin.  If only there were instructions!, diagrams!, but ah well, not so.  Back to his room now, he picked out a shirt of crushed velvet, dark purple, and mangy jeans; he hauled on his motorcycle boots.  Not of Newark, but of seemingly elsewhere.  This was not, he chided himself, an identity crisis, but merely an identity huh? What pulsed within him was the plain, dull self he yearned to slough, how he wanted to create a sly, naughty self.  Ha ha, what a laugh. 

    Flickering through his mind now (why?) was the swell but dour girl beyond the window pane with her mussed-flustered mother.  No doubt an individual and smarmy hell there, if cushy.  No kinship with that brat, no, yet how her eyes had pained him, pricked his heart.  What had she imagined of him?  Maybe she could tell him who he was.  No, this was silly, this was only city nerves, after all, nothing more to it.  

                                 *     *     *
    “Janey?  Janey!”  The mother squall in the hallway.  Jane flipped onto her back, focused on the ceiling.  “Janey, my darling spawn!”

    “Don’t sass!”

      But she was miles from sass; sass was away in the distance; her what! was merely crude kneejerk, lacking the savvy nuance of the previous, genuine sass.  The raucous ma bashed into the room; she had plummeted out of fizzy manic into a trough of melancholy.  “Janey, you will become an adult one day with all the crap it brings.”  Said with menace, said snidely dark.

     “I don’t care!” Jane barked.  “Go away!”

      Away the mother went, humph and thump.  Humdrum drama.  Jane flung herself out of bed, thrust shut the door, and stood, limbs rigid, at her full-length mirror.  But it wasn’t a mirror, it was a display window, and this gawky body was only plastic parts fitted together.  A wondrous moment of withdrawal, yet within this was the guy assembling the mannequin.

     Trace.  She would name him Trace.  When she became a writer, she would fashion a story around him.  She would place him in romantic squalor, with a blurp of angst in his soul.  One evening after his shift assembling mannequins, he would put on a shirt of crushed velvet, dark purple, and mangy jeans; he would put on his motorcycle boots; he would understand that he was not himself.  


J E N N Y   W A L E S   S T E E L E

​​H E R M E N E U T I C   C H A O S   J O U R N A L

S T A C Y   T R A U T W E I N   B U R N S

Jenny Wales Steele's fiction has been included in Sou'Wester, The Ampersand Review, Cleaver Magazine, Juked, Jet Fuel Review, One Throne, Quay, Salt Hill, Gravel, among many others. She has also been nominated three times for the Pushcart.