recently, actually until Wednesday, I never really thought about why this
apartment was so messed up. The walls don’t hold nails, and dirt rains down
from the cracked ceiling for no particular reason, and the kitchen and the
bathroom are basically the same room. Enough reason to want to move, although,
I must say, this place suited my needs for quite some time. But now I’m
ready to move on, and it didn’t really matter to me why this place looks
like it does.
Anyway, my landlord leaves this note in my
box that says this guy’s gonna come over to look at my apartment. And this
guy comes over and looks at my apartment, I assume because he’s thinking
about renting, and he brings this old lady with him who lives up the street.
Her name’s Joy or Joyce or something like that, just some friend of the
landlord’s because the landlord can’t make it over that day, so she comes
in with him, and it’s been a while since I’ve cleaned, so I’m folding clothes
and putting them away, and right while I’m cleaning they both come in, and
they start looking around, and she starts telling him about the building.
They’re standing in my apartment as if I’m
not even there, which is fine, I’m doing my own thing, and he keeps pointing
out things that worry him, like the small windows and the makeshift wiring—it’s
two wires nailed to the ceiling a few inches apart. They run parallel to
each light bulb, into the fixtures and then back out, and then they go into
the wall and up through the ceiling. It’s some sort of strange, pre-Victorian
construction, absolutely ancient, totally sketchy. And the floors? Well,
the brick floors in the front room sort of slope down at the edges, where
they meet the walls, no big problem really, but in the little room, the
back room with the wooden floor, that floor in there really heaves up in
the middle. It’s got to be at least five or six inches higher in places.
And Joy, or Joyce, I really can’t remember her name, well, rather than assuaging
this guy’s fears, she starts talking about what these rooms looked like
originally, before this was a separate apartment, back when this was just
a part of one big house.
There was a woodcarver who lived here, she’s saying,
back in the 1860s, when this was just a railroad town, and he lived here
with his daughter, who was his apprentice. Pretty progressive thinking for
the 1860s, having a female apprentice, but it was out of necessity. The
man had no sons and he needed help, and he wasn’t the only woodcarver in
town. There was another woodcarver who had a shop down the street a ways—small
scale competition, true, especially since there was so much work to go around,
woodcarving was a booming business back then—but this other woodcarver had
a son to help him out, so there you are.
Both families did really fine work, and there
was enough business so no one really had to worry, but you know how these
things go, they developed a rivalry. For the fathers, it’s an obvious progression—family
pride and stubbornness turning into disdain—but for the kids it doesn’t
come so naturally, this sourness. But still, they’re sworn to stay away
from each other. Each father keeps telling his kid horrible things about
the other family: stories about poor craftsmanship and bad design, or how
they use scraps, warped wood, cheap tools. It isn’t long before the kids
find themselves filled with a wariness for each other that they don’t really
understand, of course, because they’ve inherited it, and it isn’t based
I’ve stopped folding my clothes at this point,
and I’m not really eavesdropping because this is my apartment, after all,
and I’m looking at my front door, which sits in its frame crookedly, and
I notice that if it wasn’t for the way the hinges are set, and if it wasn’t
for the neglect it has withstood, this would be a really handsome door.
I’m looking at my front door as if for the first time, and I realize how
intricately carved it is, how fine the work is. It occurs to me that this
door might be over a hundred years old, and yeah, it’s banged up something
fierce, but still, there’s something about this door that is making Joyce’s
story sort of real and creepy and believable.
She’s looking at me now, and we haven’t introduced
ourselves yet, haven’t said anything to each other yet, but she’s been standing
in my house and I’ve been listening in on her story so we’re not exactly
strangers anymore. I guess she could have stopped there, I don’t think either
me or the guy would have pressed her about it, but she’s already started
it, and it seems like she wants to tell it, and we’re obviously listening,
so she continues telling the story, now looking over at me a little more
often, as if she’s shifted her sense of audience just a little bit.
The fathers, inevitably, get older. The kids
grow through their teens and into their twenties, sharpening their business
skills and honing their craft. They love their work, truly love it, which
is fortunate for them because it’s all they do, all they ever do, seeing
as both of them are only children being groomed to take over a family business.
And they’re both just as good as the other one. Only they can tell the subtle
differences between their products. You’d be happy to get anything from
either one of them, and both business keep flourishing, but there’s a sadness
in both houses, a palpable lack.
The fathers are widowers, tight-lipped and
stoic, no so unusual really, and not recently either, but their kids—their
intelligent, successful kids who are now in their twenties—are still single.
Not just single, but almost absolutely and desperately alone, in large part
because their logical choice for companionship has been forbidden since
before they can remember. It drives them to work even harder, this loneliness.
It drives them deeper into themselves and their fantasies.
The young man starts his mannequin first.
It isn’t long before she starts hers. They have needs but it’s not just
that, they need mates, something more, someone who understands. They build,
not just statues but articulated sculptures. They see each other every day.
They’re maybe the only person of the opposite sex that they’ve ever had
any interest in and so, well… He carves a slightly smaller head on his statue
to start. He’s not so concerned with actual size: large chest, long narrow
waist, big hips, tiny head—it’s kind of ridiculous and comical and cartoonish.
She carves a long thin sinewy tall man whose hips, arms, and elbows swivel
so he can sit down and be comfortable when she’s working. His mannequin
just stands there, stock still, for years.
He hears through customers and clients and
she hears through customers and clients—they don’t actually see, but they
know what’s going on, what the other one is doing. So he carves an adequate
and proportional head and she articulates the fingers and they keep elevating
the level of their craft and accuracy. It isn’t much longer before they’ve
imbued these mannequins—these mannequin have been in their shops for years,
keeping them company like siblings, like lovers, supportive and present,
all the things you’d want from a mate—it isn’t long before they imbue these
companions with life.
They smile and frown and furrow their brows—they
don’t become fully animate but they express and gesture, just short of speaking
and thinking and talking. They have emotions like pets, I suppose, and as
good as that is, as much as that is the way things are and have been, everything
changes when the two fathers hit old age and die.
The boy’s father dies first and it leaves
him truly alone. He’s now not a boy, he’s almost middle aged, accompanied
by a hundred matchsticks and a wooden box that he tells jokes to, and now
that his father’s gone it’s totally insufficient. And because there’s nobody
watching over his shoulder, nobody there at all, he does the unthinkable.
He takes this woman, this almost perfect model of a mate, and he burns her.
She’s screaming and she cries and she is dead and there’s nothing left for
him to do, he’s totally committed, and he goes down the street to introduce
himself to the other woodcarver’s daughter.
He goes down the street and knocks on the
door and her father, who is still alive, answers the door and throws him
out. No, not here, you’re not welcome here.
The woodcarver’s daughter looks out from
the back room and sees this happen. She knows who he is and she knows what
it’s all about. So that night she pries up the floorboards in her shop and
lays her mannequin to rest, along with all the old heads and unarticulated
hands and mishaped parts, all the variations she had tried over the years
until she got him right—she lays the mannequin to rest and goes down the
street, resigned to meeting her destiny, meeting this man that she knows—that
everyone knows—is hers, would be hers, has been hers. She takes this step,
declining the animated for the real, takes the step that everyone has been
expecting forever—even her father, though this has been his greatest fear—and
arrives in front of the door of her intended, her fated lover.
What no one expected though, was that her
mannequin, dismantled and buried under the floorboards, would start to cry.
No one heard it, this silent weeping, but the wooden hands and heads and
misshapen parts under the floorboards began to bloat and check and swell
and crack like a log underwater, and the floorboards began to buckle and
At this point Joy’s voice begins to trail
off. The three of us are all just standing there in my apartment, staring
at the place where the floor heaves up in the middle. I did want to know
the rest of the story—find out if the woodcarver’s daughter loved him, married
him, discovered he was an idiot, or what—but I ask them to leave, and they
do, and I lock the door and I sit there for a minute or two, staring at
the floor. And then I begin to pry up the boards.