His house was on the corner opposite mine. When I sat on my front porch on Saturday mornings, I could see him out in the garden pulling weeds or mulching his pepper plants, that long-eared beagle trailing behind him. He had a little Craftsman cottage, cedar shingles, forest green trim on the windows. A homey, tidy little cottage, nearly as pretty as mine. With a mannequin in the front window.
She was seated at the dining room table, in the nude, if that term can be applied to a mannequin. Had she been stolen from the Macy’s window downtown? She had a tumbled mess of nylon hair the color of ripe corn. One arm was extended, with a little twist of the wrist, as if she were admiring a new diamond tennis bracelet. Her pink plastic face, vapidly smiling, was not looking at the man seated opposite her at the table. I didn’t want to stare, but was that a dinner plate?
What kind of weirdo was I dealing with here? Surely mannequins weren’t anatomically correct? Their little hands were hard plastic, so there was no way they could… What was going on in my neighborhood? For crying out loud, there was an elementary school two blocks from here! I scrolled down through the registry of sex offenders for my zip code, my stomach in knots, but didn’t find the address of the cottage.
I kept a very close eye on him after that. Images flashed through my head whenever I passed his front window, Hannibal Lecter standing tall and proud in prison blues, waiting for poor Clarice; a dank, moldy basement, a row of mannequins chained to the walls, forced into heaven knows what perversions. Oddly enough, she never seemed to move from her place at the table. She never put on clothes, either, and her head never turned, so at least he didn’t seem to be interacting with her in any fashion. Perhaps he was on medication? I was not relieved at the thought.
His garden was looking good, and I strolled by perhaps more often that necessary, keeping an eye peeled for suspicious coffin-shaped holes being dug after dark. It looked like he had a row of heirloom tomatoes growing like gangbusters on the picket fence, and I hoped they were not being fertilized by anything other than MiracleGro. His dog always came to the fence to greet me, his sorrowful beagle face and floppy ears just begging for a cuddle and scratch.
“Hello, sweet baby! You are the best boy. Oh, good, that’s right, you love having your ears scratched, don’t you?” The dog and I were not alone. He popped up from the heirloom pinks along the back wall. I was shocked to see him wearing a Navy ball cap very similar to my own. His said USS Enterprise; mine said USNS Comfort. Ball caps were part of the uniform aboard ship, and this was one way Navy people identified each other. He nodded at me, eyes taking in my ball cap and my fingers dug into his dog’s ears, scratching.
He was a sailor? Did he know the entire neighborhood has seen his naked Barbie doll in the dining room window? This was getting worse and worse. I walked away, my back straight, and I heard him laughing behind me, this wheezy little wheeheehee.
I was bummed out. I had searched and searched for the right house with the right garden in the right neighborhood. I wanted to stay here forever, on my perfect street, in my perfect little house, and now some weirdo off the Enterprise had a naked doll sitting at his dining room table. I didn’t know if I was prepared to keep a vigil on this guy, but somebody needed to, before the local squirrels and cats started to disappear. Maybe I should just set the Neighborhood Watch on him.
A week later, and I walked up to Starbucks for a muffin and latte. The dog spotted me first, threw himself at me with delirious joy. Mr. Mannequin nodded. “Hello, Comfort.”
He scooted a chair toward me with his foot. “You want to join me?”
“I believe you have a naked mannequin sitting at your dining room table.” Yeah, that’s right. I’m on to you.
He gave that laugh again, wheeheehee. “It’s a toy for my grandbaby. She always liked Barbies.”
And every time I saw him after that, the corners of his eyes scrunched up and he bit his lip like he was trying not to laugh.
It was late in the summer when the girl came to visit him, hair the shade of an Italian eggplant, striped stockings like rainbows on her skinny legs. She flung herself into his arms, shrieking, “Grandpa!” The entire street heard her, she chattered at the speed of light, and the beagle hid under the porch.
I took my walk like always that evening, and when I passed the front window, Barbie was missing from her usual seat at the table. She wasn’t gone, though. She was propped up in the corner of the porch, and the girl was draping pretty burnt orange silk around her waist. She was talking through a mouthful of pins. “Okay, Grandpa, now look at this one. This one’s going to be a tea gown.”
“A tea gown? What’s a tea gown?”
I leaned over the fence, reached for some friendly ears to scratch. The beagle howled, begging for release, and I swear, I felt like doing the same. Enterprise came to the screen door.
“I’ll take him for a walk,” I said. He nodded and tossed me the leash, biting his lip, and the rest of the way down the street I thought I heard him behind me, wheeheehee.
Sarah Black is a fiction writer.