Maybe I was lonely. I thought it would be fun to get a mannequin and dress him up in overalls and take pictures of us working together outside. That was the first idea—some sort of amusing male-bonding photo essay. We have a place on a dead end road with a lot of land that needs tending. We used to live closer to friends and now it’s mostly just us—me, my wife, and our ten-year-old son.
I’d been noticing mannequins near my apartment on Broadway in Washington Heights. Most of them were curvy female mannequins or strapping jocky-looking fellows. I went in to a couple stores and offered cash for a mannequin right out of the window, but nobody would sell to me. Then I looked on Craigslist and there he was: mannequin for sale. I called the number and a guy with a vaguely European accent answered. He was in a hurry and distracted. He said he would bring the mannequin to my apartment building in the city but he didn’t have much time and he would need cash. A hundred dollars to be exact.
The European mannequin dealer arrived on time. I went down to the street and found him dragging my mannequin out of the back of a mini-van. I was immediately impressed. He looked regal, much more graceful and high end than I’d imagined. His color was a radiant opal. We were the same height, eye to eye. He had a silver support stand and some sort of protective white Styrofoam fabric around his legs and torso. Even protective padding looked casually stylish on him. He looked international without being too effete. He seemed gentle. I instantly noticed something kind about his posture. I appreciated his pose, just sort of standing there, totally relaxed, open, ready. I took him upstairs. On the way up the elevator stopped and the door opened. A small dog started barking at my mannequin and the owner looked confused.
“We’ll catch it on the way down,” the dog owner said.
Right away I started referring to my mannequin as Mann. My wife and son wondered what was going on when they came home and saw him standing in the foyer. I explained my plan of getting Mann up to the country as soon as possible. Later that night I woke up and wandered down the hall for some water. I saw Mann out of the corner of my eye and gasped, startled by the form of a tall guy over by the door.
“Hey Mann,” I said.
That weekend I brought Mann to the country. I woke up at dawn Saturday morning and went to collect him in the garage. He was standing there, waiting for me. I put a hat on him, a funny orange hunting hat, but immediately that looked wrong. It was insulting to his form and his attitude. I mean, he seemed easygoing, but something in his one permanent pose said, really? A hat? Look at me, I’m not meant for that. So from then on he remained as is, nude, and totally at ease with it. He looked wild standing in the field, like some cosmic scarecrow. He looked eerie in the woods. From above, from behind, from below, visually he always had something to offer. The shadows and light bounced off him just so, and the morning dew on his face was damn near holy.
I preferred to carry him whole whenever possible. He wasn’t too heavy and I developed a carrying grip that required me to hook my arm between his legs and balance him over my shoulder. Sometimes if the terrain was rough I would have to take him apart. He separated at the waist and his arms detached at the shoulder, and sometimes my son would carry Mann’s arms for me.
He was starting to show slight signs of distress from being outdoors. I winced when I saw the first few nicks and dings on him. But he was going to get banged up, same as me. After a month or so of exploring the land together I realized I might need more Menn. Mann seemed a little lonely. Friends saw some of the early pictures I was taking and said as much.
“Something about his vibe is so…alone,” someone said.
“I love how he seems so solitary and patient.”
My father said that Mann looked “impervious to insult and fundamentally honest.”
People kept telling me to see some movie about a guy and his inflatable girlfriend. Others took it to an obvious gay place.
“Robbie’s got a new special somebody…”
“Why so many ass shots?”
“What’s really going on with you two?”
“Why don’t you get a female for him, so it can be, like, Adam and Eve.”
I never even considered a female mannequin. I didn’t think of Mann as male. He was sort of beyond gender to me. He was Mann. One night after a dinner a friend looked at some of my photographs and said, “The extraordinary thing isn’t the mannequin itself or the places you put him but how clearly your love for him comes through in the pictures.”
We all laughed at this, but later that night when I was alone I looked at the photographs and realized how true this was. Many of the photos were the kind you take of a new lover. His clavicle after a rain, the morning light around his eye. Time with Mann was always peaceful, calming, and quiet.
I called the European and asked if he had any more mannequins. I was very specific: they had to be just like the one I had.
Turns out he did. Two more. We made the deal out in the street again and he told me he might be able to get even more, but probably not. Evidently I had lucked into the last of a rare breed.
Now I had three. I’m almost ashamed to say that they became one and the same to me. I did not keep track of which Mann came first. Seasons passed and after a while I put them together in shots—two, occasionally all three.
When grouped together they sometimes seemed like visitors from space waiting to be picked up and taken back home. I carried one Mann in pieces to the top of a tree, fifty feet above the pond. I reassembled him up there and tied him into position. He watched over the place like some sort of albino Ishmael for a month or so in the dead of winter. I took another Mann in the summer and covered every inch of him with mud and made a crown of flowers and sticks for him.
Just the other day I went into the garage and saw one Mann in pieces on the ground where I’d left him after some rearranging. I felt guilty about the state he was in, torso and head here, legs over there, arms up on a table. Leaving him in this state would have been inconceivable during the first months. One of them lost a hand in a fall. I felt like a bad friend, like I’d betrayed them. But they were always so forgiving, so ready for another adventure.
Two Menn stood guard all through the fall on the bank of the pond next to a rowboat filled with stones. I call the boat of stones Row No More. The Menn look at home in the tall grass standing next to this useless vessel, gazing west up the valley. They seem as if they are conversing, making a plan, wondering about the man who put them there and if he will ever let them go.
Those two have been out there since winter now. They stood up in the bitter cold and howling wind, snow up to their thighs. I put big stones around their ankles to keep them from falling over. But last night one of them went down, falling backwards into the snow and dried out reeds. Once again there is only one Mann standing there. Maybe he is the first one. I wish I knew. I’m going out there now to lift up the one who has fallen. I don’t like to leave them like that.
I made a slideshow of photographs from the early days with Mann. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2Q-_kYZTVn-QnEzb2M1aVlUc1U/edit I get nostalgic for that time. I like to relive the first surge of whatever it was we shared. It’s like watching an old home movie. I was there with my camera the first time snowflakes fell on his head. The first time he dried off in the sunshine after a rain, and when he first stood in the stream, water flowing around his ankles. Those first few seasons were the best, back when everything was new.