On her second visit, Pauline cleaned and organized old sets of dishes along their display, dusting everything as she rearranged it. She faced a large plate or platter from each set towards the shop and stacked other pieces of the set in front of it to hold it in place. As she worked, Pauline became aware of a low sobbing. It was almost lost to the harsh wailing operatic trills piped into the small shop, but it was clearly audible. Pauline turned quickly towards the source of the sound, straining to hear. A hushed woman’s cries seemed to echo from the basement, down the dark rackety stairwell.
Dear God, that creepy man Chester has someone trapped down there, Pauline thought. She stepped towards the stairwell briefly and then stopped in her tracks. What if he was there? He had explicitly said never to go downstairs and, if he had one poor hapless girl trapped there, he probably wouldn’t think twice before adding another…
Pauline glanced around the shop. Betty Lou was sitting up front, motionless. She had apparently fallen asleep in her chair, waiting for the brass bell tied to the door to ring and alert her to any would-be shoppers. Chester was nowhere to be found. The downstairs lurked, dark and unobserved. Slowly, Pauline crept down the stairwell, slinking along the wall. It ended in a tight hallway. An open door straight ahead gestured into a small closet boasting a mop bucket, broom, and other cleaning supplies. A closed wooden door to the left led under the main body of the shop. The hushed wailing was louder now, emanating from behind the closed door.
Pauline felt the doorknob. It was cold and clammy, worn with age and use. It turned easily, apparently left unlocked. Pauline glided slowly into the room. It was dark, save for a small work lamp clamped to the corner of a reappropriated office desk that had been left on, but her eyes adjusted quickly. The room was a library of mannequin parts. Everything was categorized and shelved on hardware store metal racks accordingly. The lower level cradled an array of legs, some attached in pairs at the hip, others singly spilling over one another, loosely arranged in a pile. A higher shelf held a tangle of arms. An array of torsos sat motionless in the corner.
As she slid past the metal shelves, Pauline noticed a plastic bin with drawers of glass eyes, all sorted into pairs by color. Chipped china bowls held various nuts and bolts, a small jelly jar of nails and other metal tacks among them. Some cleaning and painting supplies took up one end of a shelf, their cracking paper labels faded and peeling beyond readability, along with several very used and notably rust-stained rags that reeked of strong chemicals and lingering funk. The sobbing grew louder as Pauline approached the desk, an out-of-date office monstrosity of rusted metal painted to look like wood with a poorly maintained melanine work surface streaked with gouges, stains, and glued-on detritus.
A lone mannequin torso was perched on the desk, that of a strikingly beautiful young woman. She seemed almost too real, eerily even more so than the elegant mannequin that had drawn Pauline to work in this creepy backwash in the first place. Her Fiberglass frame had a quality about it that seemed almost genuinely fleshy or waxy, like it was still pliable and malleable. A blonde cascade of curls draped itself over her shoulders and spilled onto the desk, coiling into a chipped china saucer filled with small wig pins. Her pale blue eyes appeared wet, staring pleadingly at Pauline. Everything about her looked alive but frozen in time and space, caught in a static hollow shell. She smelled of Fiberglass and harsh chemical cleaners, but also faintly of lilacs and lavender oil and of something else more offputting that Pauline couldn’t place, something decaying.
As she studied the mannequin intently, she realized the soft sobbing seemed to emanate from her. As Pauline stood staring, a single tear welled in the mannequin’s right eye, pooling into a full droplet before streaking down her cheek towards her pouty full lips. The lone drip was quickly reabsorbed into the Fiberglass form tracing only a shiny streak through the paint on her face until that too dried and she was again wholly static. The low weeping continued, and a second droplet began to form, again in her right eye. It pooled before streaking down her cheek like its predecessor. Pauline’s stomach tightened into a ball and locked in her gut. Something was decidedly amiss.
Pauline was shaken from the scene as she heard the bell on the door ring and muffled footsteps trail above her head. She dashed out of the room as fast as she could quietly muster, closing the door behind her on her way out. She slid up the stairs and slunk back to the dishes, returning those she had been cleaning to their shelf as if she had been there the whole time.
Betty Lou was engaged in talking to a couple of drag queens who came to pore through the boxes of old wigs, looking for gems that had henceforth gone undiscovered. As they rifled through a box, Betty Lou pointed out other crates hidden under clothing racks and on lower shelves. One of the visitors was trying on a pair of vintage crystal heels and trying to convince the other that they would work for the show if they just extended the straps a bit.
Pauline finished arranging the shelf of dishes wordlessly, focusing on the task at hand. She was still shaken by her experience downstairs, and could not get the image of the single tear winding its way down the mannequin’s cheek out of her head. She wrapped up what she was doing and flashed a goodbye at Betty Lou as she streaked past and out the door. Betty Lou was still fumbling through a box of wigs, pulling out one after another to run her thick fingers through them and hold them aloft for her visitors to consider. A pile of rejects sat to her side while those that passed inspection were lined up on the counter.
“Bye, hon,” Betty Lou cooed from behind the register. “See you next week.”
After what she had experienced downstairs, for all that she had no idea what exactly she’d seen, Pauline wasn’t entirely sure she’d be back…