The Mannequin In the Room

If I can enter a writing contest at age 43, so should you! (Also, bringing a mannequin helps soothe frazzled nerves).

Photo courtesy of Ted Weinstein

For my first Litquake reading, I couldn’t resist getting a mannequin. I won Litquake’s essay contest for my essay, “The Mannequin in the Room.” Since the central character of the 500-word piece is a mannequin, I figured it was worth the effort to borrow, schlep, set up and return a bigger than life lady doll. I love drama and weirdos, so having a mannequin to really drive home the themes in my essay seemed like an exciting and fun way to keep folks entertained. It also boosted my confidence in the same way my stuffies did when I was afraid at night as a wee one.

Rita at the Mission District’s Rare Bird vintage clothing store loaned me the store’s mannequin. The mannequin is perfect, and I’ve admired her for the seven years she’s been in the window, with so many costume changes and accessories, taking in the pedestrian activity from her Valencia Street perch with an always cool and vacant stare.

“Call the store and tell them you’re coming over,” my literary editor husband Oscar says the day of the reading. Pick up is at 4, and it’s now 3:40. I am wearing a bright pink cotton dress (tight), with orange-pink-brown eyeshadow, thrift store necklace and gold flats. I hope the pink dress is not a sign that I “think pink” during October — do NOT buy pink crap in my honor for breast cancer awareness, this month or ever, pretty please! The outfit is comfortable (most important for any event, no?), and I hope it offers a visual counterpoint to the mannequin: she is a vintage icon and I like thrift store and vintage goods, too.

Rita says on the phone, “OK, I will show you how to dismantle her. See you then.”

I am snappy when Oscar wants to remove some cans of grapefruit Le Croix from the trunk to make more room for the mannequin. Sparkling water bought on the cheap can wait!
 
 “Priorities!” I tell him in an exasperated tone, adding, “please don’t put those inside. We need to go.” I have a schedule to keep, and do not want to wait for him to move these cans.

Yes, I am nervous.

Perhaps I am hanging onto what he said when a few days ago, I told him about the mannequin idea. “Well I’m not going to carry a mannequin the whole night,” he vowed. 
 
 “After all the times I’ve driven your ass to book festivals in L.A.?!” I argued back. Yes, carrying a mannequin amidst the thousands of people walking the street for Lit Crawl is a pain. But it’s also something I can’t likely do on my own since carrying her is a two-person job. Besides, what are the chances it will get people talking and wondering? (And later… remembering!)

I park in a driveway and take care to not touch the car’s roof or doors. There is so much ash and dust on my car from the fires that are 50 miles away. These fires are on everyone’s minds, and the sense of loss and devastation override everything. Oscar and I go inside.

Rita is the only staff member working, and had some guests buying goods. We wait. I admire a gold sequin tank top on the wall, and how beautifully arranged the clothes are. If you want black clothes, here’s the section. Red and other brighter colors are well represented too, and the sartorial years are deep into the 1960s and 70s, with the occasional splash of 80s mixed in.

Rita is straightforward with her directions. The mannequins’ body parts come apart easily, and one hand has clear tape on it, because the finger keeps coming off. This mannequin wears a shimmery gown with silver accents, has a black bobbed wig, and sunglasses. As I carry her legs to the car, white powder smudges my dress. Orange powder also smudges and sticks to the back seat, but I won’t figure that out ’til days later.

There’s a line out the door at Samovar Tea House, where the reading will be. I struggle to get through the front door, and two women say, “Oh! Naked lady coming!” because the mannequin’s legs awkwardly hang from my arms. I give them a thin smile.

It is so hot in here. Crowded, too. There is a black speaker attached to a mic in the back, and I see the producer, Darothy Durkac in her green Litquake tee. We hug, and decide to set the mannequin in the back, then bring her forward when I read my essay — I’m last out of six readers. There are so many people out front, and the sidewalk is busy with people walking their families, dogs and schlepping grocery and laundry bags. It is noisy and chaotic since cars and motorcycles are also driving by.

I try not to worry while I wait to read. I catalogue how many writers I know who do this sort of reading event all the time. They do it, so, why can’t I? That’s a logical question. But instead, my brain lingers, even hedges. It takes a while for me to get back to knowing, hey, everyone has a first time, and this is my first time, and whatever happens will happen. Maybe my hippie streak can override the Type-A fearful scaredy cat?

People are curious and interested in the mannequin, which starts to calm me. As friends arrive, I ask them if they’d like to meet my mannequin. They laugh, but I feel like my idea is a tad too out there.

With that, I start to doubt my writing. OMG, I should not read my first essay. Why didn’t I show it to anyone? Should I rip it into pieces and say I can only read one essay, the one the judges adored?

But you picked that piece because enough Wig Report readers emailed to say they like it!

Since Samovar has more space in front, our reading gets moved outside. It’s a mad, fast production, moving the speaker (which is so heavy!) out front. By group think, it is decided that the mannequin can hang out to the right of the door, and be scooted out when it is my turn. Something about a “great big reveal” is the main point. I am fearful about this, because the mannequin seems to have her issues — it is not a quick and easy snap to move her and re-set her up because her foot is attached to a silver bar. My gut is no, dammit, it’s my reading and I want her out by the speaker the entire time. It’s confusing for me to trust what is happening, but I decide to go with the flow.

When it’s my turn, four of us move the mannequin. Her body snaps in two, and we can’t get it back together. The leg is not going into the pole. Of course.
 
 Finally, a fellow reader says, “Just have her top half there, on the bench. That’ll look good.”

I have no choice.

When I step up to the mic, I am comforted to see so many people listening. The ones I recognize should know that it means so much to have friends attend your first ever mannequin reveal and Litquake reading.

As I schlep the mannequin back to the car, I giggle because so many friends are taking pictures of Oscar as he carries the top half of the mannequin. He does have a sense of humor and laughs, too. I am carefree, exhilarated, exhausted and buoyed. Her presence makes me feel creative, and even gives me hope that I can keep working at writing.

Tips for nips accepted. Help a lady writer out!

Her writing has appeared in Healthline, Playboy, Time Magazine/Extra Crispy, San Francisco Weekly, Oakland Magazine, the Contra Costa Times, & KQED. Mary is co-author of The Wig Report, a graphic novel about breast cancer.

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