I’d been so long without, that the mannequins in the dress shop window were starting to look good. If things got much worse I’d end up giving them names. I’d gotten tired of working alone in my home office, so I packed the laptop in its satchel and headed out into the rush hour foot traffic. The coffeehouse would be crowded, but you could usually get a table even if you had to share. Everyone would be starting into a cellphone or laptop, so you could have company without the annoyance of reluctant smalltalk. My route took me past the dress shop, where the slim dummies in their elegant come-on poses could mock my solitude. They’d outdone themselves with today’s display. One of them was so lifelike, yet so remote, that I had to stop and look.
Of course she had perfect posture under her sleek blonde mane, she’d been built that way, but there was an insouciance to her shoulders that belied the plastic perfection of her face. She was wearing stiletto heels, a pleated skirt, and what must have been an impossibly expensive silk blouse. All fit her perfectly, of course. And the eyes—hell, I almost I thought I saw her blink. Then her head turned, and I saw the ghost of a smirk as her glance crossed mine. She settled into the new pose and became perfectly still. Ha, I thought, a dream come true, in all the wrong ways. A goddamn gimmick. I decided to play it a bit.
I sauntered up to the window, pulled an invisible cigarette out of a nonexistent pack, lit it, and blew the smoke through the display window. She frowned and coughed, then waved her hand back and forth across her face. I raised my brows and mimed apology, then stubbed out the pretended cigarette on the sole of my shoe and put it in my pocket. She mimed a laugh, and I pretended to smile shyly. I heard a giggle from someone passing by, but I didn’t care. It had been a long, slow day at the desk. I loved my apartment, but I needed this.
I pointed down the street and then mimed a sip from a cup of coffee. She raised her eyes to the ceiling and her hand to her chin, then pointed to the expensive watch on her wrist and flashed ten fingers three times. Damn me if I didn’t have a date in half an hour. I bowed and went on.
I found a seat in the dark comfort of the coffeehouse. All around, people sipped from paper cups and stared at flickers on screens. I got back to work but kept an eye on the door. People came and went, but no mannequin. Her entrance would have stirred up some reaction even from the terminally screenbound denizens of the coffeehouse. When the display at the corner of my own screen told me half an hour had passed, I gave up. It had been a long shot anyway.
The office-hives were still emitting drones, and the place filled up. Someone loomed at my table, then set down a mug and a muffin. A slim woman in tight jeans and dark mannish shirt seated herself and looked me in the eye. She had short black hair cut guy-style and a no-nonsense look. “Mind if I join you, Clown Boy?”
I was taken aback by this. True, I hadn’t brushed my hair that morning, but still…. She smiled wickedly. “Still like what you see?”
I studied her as she leaned back in the chair. She settled her face into a pose of empty perfection. The large eyes, the straight nose and lips…. “You’re the…living doll?”
“Yep,” she snapped. “Minus wig, heels, overpriced rags, and that goddamned pancake. The real me, insofar as there is one.” She straightened up, looked off to one side, leveled her shoulders, and became a goddess again, for two seconds. Then she relaxed and became small again. She turned her gaze on me with a sharp-edged smile.
“You don’t like the job?,” I asked her.
“I like the paycheck. I’m an actor. I know, like every third person on this goddamned street. You too, I suppose? You put on a pretty good show on the street there.”
I shook my head. “No, I was winging it. It’s been a long, slow day giving people sensible advice that they could figure out on their own if they weren’t so egotistical. Of course they don’t listen to me. But they pay. Usually.”
“Yeah, I hear you. The ‘usually’ part.”
“So…what do you act in? Besides windows, of course?”
“The very heart of the industry. By which I mean commercials. If you have a passionate interest in dog food, laundry soap, cheap beer, or car insurance, you’ve seen me. Though I hope to god you don’t recognize me.”
“I didn’t recognize you just now.”
“Good,” she smirked. “This isn’t exactly portfolio work.”
“You do it well,” I said.
So much for playing the flattery card. Maybe the direct approach would work. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Ha. You’ll get that on a need-to-know basis. Decided by me. You come off as a semi-charming fool, but how do I know that isn’t a front for a creep?”
“Is that a rhetorical question, or are you asking me as a consultant?”
“Nice try, Clown Boy. But a little too arch. You’ll have to do better.”
“When I see you next? I mean, besides in the window.”
“Ah, you stepped on my line. Yeah…if you see me next.”
“And when do I find out ‘if’ I see you next? Do we have a date for ‘next’?”
“I’ll let you know at coffee tomorrow, Clown Boy. If I show up.”
She rose from her chair with maddening grace, slipped out the door, and dissolved into the sidewalk traffic. Something was blinking on my screen, but I think it was a good five minutes before I even noticed.
Richard Risemberg was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online ‘zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people’s souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He’s survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn’t been easy for any of us.