Art: Lars and the Real Girl
I moved to Los Angeles in my twenties, bringing only a duffle bag filled with clothes, a shoebox of photographs and keepsakes, and a laptop on which I planned to write a screenplay. I lived in West Hollywood, in an apartment near Santa Monica Boulevard with three guys I knew from home. Between us we had one bedroom, six part-time jobs, and ambitions that were uniformly grandiose, ranging from standup comedy, to writing, to getting kicked in the groin live on the Internet by a buxom porn star clad in spikes and leather.
That last ambition belonged to Horace, a 250-pound romantic I met in a creative writing workshop at a college we both dropped out of. He and I bonded fast because we were older than our classmates, having spent a few years after high school working fast food. I liked Horace for his singularity. Despite living an hour south of where I’d been a kid in suburban Chicago, Horace talked with a southern accent. Horace was also falling in love constantly with women from the Internet. He’d meet a girl with blue streaks in her hair on a message board that was dedicated to videogames or anime, correspond via chat for weeks, and then show up sullen one day for lunch at the dining hall. Eventually, Horace would drink too much and take lachrymose walks around campus, blubbering at the top of his lungs and quoting Scarface, all, “Say hell-hell-helloooooo to the bad guuuuy!” I’d often hear his wails bouncing from red brick buildings in the quad on some late Thursday. If I asked Horace about his meltdowns later, Horace acted bewildered, claiming to have heard of but never really seen Scarface.
Back then I too had my melodrama. I was a writer who was majoring in marketing, as per my parents’ demand that I train for a day job to pay my bills. After I finished the last of my college’s writing workshops, I panicked. Obsessed with literary production, I pressured myself to write every night and all weekend, failed to do so, and removed all joy from the practice, which made it impossible to finish even a bad story. So, I began to get drunk and shout in the quad at night about how I was the bad guy, in my best Tony Montana accent, of course—just kidding (also, last reference to Scarface). What I actually did was plaster my crisis across Facebook, repeatedly. I wrote long screeds about art being my raison d’être, about refusing to finish my degree if it meant graduating into a world where I would not be writing.
It was this public doubt and aimlessness that got me invited to LA. My friend Jamaal, who’d moved to Chicago after high school to hone his comedic chops at the improv shows that happen all over that city, saw my posts and reached out. Jamaal was heading to Hollywood soon with another comedian and needed a couple of extra compadres to split gas money and eventually rent. I figured a change of scenery might ease my creative blockage. I told Horace we should go and write a movie, Horace was in.
Horace spent the 20-some hour ride in the backseat asleep. Out west, he cooked burgers at In-N-Out for a few months, saved $350, and then asked Jamaal if he could borrow his car to drive to a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, where Horace paid to be strapped nude to a wall, held aloft only by his handcuffed wrists and ankles like a pink squishy X. A live feed was cast on the Internet for a per minute fee. I, of course, watched. I watched with Jamaal and our other roommate, Jamaal’s friend, Alejandro. Filled with awkward fascination and beer, we watched Horace get kicked in the groin by a woman with breast implants, a Scottish accent, and features that were vaguely Greek in origin. The kick was forceful, shoeless, direct. Afterward, the woman gave Horace a hand job or something (we shut down the feed post-booting, but an awful lot of stomach caressing was going on before that). A few days later, Horace called a meeting of roommates and broke the news that he’d booked a flight home and was bailing.
I was indignant, all, “What the hell, man? We’re supposed to write a movie.”
Horace just cocked his head on his fat neck, real slow, and said, “Jesse, muh friend? I believe the key to life is bein’ honest about what exactly it is you want and why you want it.”
I never saw Horace again, except on Facebook, where I looked him up for the purposes of this piece; he manages a steakhouse in Peoria now and keeps a prolific, detailed blog about his ongoing dalliances in sadomasochism—also, his life seems happy and simple, like the lives of lapsed Facebook friends usually do.
With Horace gone, our rent increased. I struggled to stay in California. I worked a day job at a comic shop on Sunset Boulevard and a night gig bussing tables at a hotel restaurant on the edge of Beverly Hills. For transportation, I took the bus or begged rides from Jamaal. I spent my scant free time frustrated and overtired and poor, nursing a belief that I could become a famous writer, of books of television of movies of whatever, if I could just get some time off of work, to spend hunched at my laptop in Starbucks, breaking only for coffee refills and the men’s room.
I thought often of Horace. The morning after the big kick, having just paid a robust sum for distressed testicles, that hefty and perpetually-failing lothario was unburdened and lithe. I wondered if Horace was right, if he’d discovered some universal secret, like, there was vast wisdom to lusting after a single kinky thrill. Maybe pursuing such a thing could free my writing, could put me in an inspired place of peace, or, conversely, maybe it could give me the clarity to quit and go home. Either seemed preferable to my present purgatory.
I took action alone with my laptop at night (said no successful person ever, except maybe Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and probably also Quentin Tarantino). I spent hours Googling how to find your fetish, fetish play for dummies, what is a fetish, where can I get a fetish, fetishes and me, fetishes for me, fetishes of the rich and creative, etc. I watched videos and read graphic message board posts. I scoured the Internet for an easy deviance.
I discovered no end of ways to, ahem, rub one out, but I did not find any of these bedroom experiments personally arousing. I’d nearly abandoned my search, accepting my sexual mundanity, when I learned via reddit that a screenwriter I admired was into mannequin legs. I’d long enjoyed the guy’s work (he’d created a meta sitcom with characters who were aware they were on TV and thus able to subvert genre tropes), and so I listened to a linked podcast wherein the writer described his, ahem, alone time (I’d be glad to share the link, just shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org). The guy said he rubbed the toe of a disembodied mannequin leg on his nipple and imagined his ex-girlfriends sleeping with his buddies. After completion, he wondered depressively how he’d gotten so fat. About 20 minutes after that, he began writing. Relative to most other fetishes, with their whippings and their costumes and their sauces, gloomily masturbating with a mannequin leg struck me as quaint—I decided to give it a whirl.
I embarked upon a quest for a leg because you can’t just order one on the Internet for some reason, and that quest took me to a mannequin graveyard on the far north side of the San Fernando Valley, past Burbank in a nothing part of the Los Angeles sprawl called Pacoima. It was a lousy place to be, both literally and figuratively.
I borrowed Jamaal’s car and took the 101 up through the Hollywood Hills, beneath the famous sign and past the faux glamour of Universal’s CityWalk. The 101 merged with the 170 and carried me above all those lovely rows of lonely Valley houses with concrete driveways and decorative palms. I hit the 5, exited Osborne Street, and after a couple more turns arrived at my destination. As Alexander the Great once carved a path through the Hindu Kush, so too did I cross the Valley in my roommate Jamaal’s Hyundai Elantra, which had broken locks and spotty air conditioning.
The mannequin graveyard was in an industrial park, encircled by a thin black fence and landscaping that was minimal and neglected. The building was made of white concrete with a single red stripe around its top like a crown. As I approached the opaque door with buzzer and narrow, forest green awning, I felt like I was in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. White letters on the tinted glass spelled MANNEQUIN GALLERY, but I knew the true nature of the place was that of a graveyard, a depository for unwanted approximations of the human form. I searched for metaphor, hoping to use the locale as a setting in a film or story, but I found nothing.
The man who answered the door was a Viking in cargo shorts and flip flops. He had a wild and unruly beard of deep brown zigging down his chest. The long hair on his head was drawn into a sloppy ponytail. He wore thin glasses on his pasty face, and his belly was pushing his navy blue t-shirt out over his waistband.
“Here I am,” said the Viking, voice flat and baritone, as one would expect. “What.”
I told him, “I’m looking for mannequin pieces, you know, like specific parts of the body. I Googled you guys, seemed like a decent bet.”
“We sell and rent. You an artist? Or event planner?”
“Writer, aspiring. Right now I work in a comic shop and bus tables at night.”
“Oh,” said the Viking.
I read into his oh and hastily added, “I’m decorating my apartment.”
“Okay,” said the Viking.
He ushered me into a realm of chaos and stiffness that smelled of acrylics, an empty warehouse without dividers or corridors, a vast expanse of modern space littered with fans, tarps, paint cans, brooms, brushes, drills, workbenches, and mannequins festooned an array of metallic colors. There were piles of loose equipment and bins of severed arms, legs, heads, torsos, feet. Hip hop from the ‘90s played on crackling laptop speakers somewhere, a song by The Pharcyde, if I remember correctly. The place was one part Andy Warhol—vibrant mishmash of creation atop naked concrete, backlit by wall-mounted bulbs like the famous artist’s factory—and one part Silence of the Lambs—the majority of mannequins were toppled and incomplete, generally lacking a face.
The Viking milled about as I followed. I have never been comfortable with silence. “I’m Jesse,” I said.
“Stanford Van Buren,” replied the Viking. “Conceived at the school, same last name as the president.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool. Are you from here?”
“Born and raised in SoCal?”
“You an actor or screenwriter or anything?”
“I sell mannequins and mannequin pieces. Speaking of which, what exactly was it you were looking for?”
“A leg,” I told him. “But, you know, maybe an arm would be better? Easier to hang up, because I’m buying this for decorating, but I already told you that.”
“Hey now,” said Stanford Van Buren. “No need to act coy, pal—guys like you? You always want a leg. For all your,” he made air quotes with his fingers, “decorating.”
I knew what he was implying, and I was offended he’d drawn conclusions about my desires based on my appearance. I wore heavy black-rimmed glasses and had not had time or money as of late to cut my scraggly, reddish-brown hair. It had also been days since I shaved, and in Los Angeles I’d been gaining weight—in my jowls, entirely—which, unlike Stanford the Viking, I carried gracelessly. Beneath my extra pounds I hunched and fidgeted. I was disheveled, sure, but none of that gave the guy the right.
“Look, man,” I warned, putting my hands up beside my head. “I’m decorating an apartment. I’m not some weirdo or something.” (I should have been so lucky.)
“Uh-huh,” said the Viking. “Lots of extra money for superfluous decorations on a comic shop guy slash bus boy’s budget? And anyway, I’m not judging. Whatever you do with your mannequin, or mannequin piece, that’s your thing and your thing only.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Little stressed out. I’m prepping a big order today. So, you said you were a writer?”
I took the peace offering, “Aspiring. I wrote short stories in college, some decent, the people in my workshops dug them, anyway, even if there was always a jackass or two who ripped me apart and said I should work harder. Jealousy can be sad.
“Ever been published?”
“Well, not yet. I’ve submitted to literary magazines, but it’s all been rejection—71, to be exact, no joke. All the same. Good luck with your life and your writing, etc. Those editors are out of touch, though. People these days prefer TV and movies. That’s why I’m out here, screenwriting.”
“How’s that going for you?” asked Stanford.
“Good, pretty good. At the moment, I’m letting my mind wander until it hits an idea worth developing. I think that’s the hardest part, you know? Staying relaxed until you find an idea, a concept worth using your weird words to create for strangers. You can’t just force greatness onto a page. It would feel contrived, and people don’t like that. For example, you think Quentin Tarantino just sat down one day, stared at his blinking cursor for a hot minute, and said, ‘Okay, Uma Thurman is a ninja, kakow!’ And then wrote Kill Bill?”
“I wouldn’t think so, no.”
“Right. Writing doesn’t work that way, not good writing. I bet QT was so relaxed Kill Bill just popped out of his subconscious. Then he refined it.” I was imparting venerable wisdom to this man, this salesman, who couldn’t possibly conceive of something so abstract as inspiration. I rolled on, “My parents don’t get it, though. Sometimes they’re like, ‘What are you even doing out there, Jesse? Can’t you write movies at home and save money?’ But in, like, a few years I’ll be 30, and then it’ll all be over. My window is now.”
“Parents, what a hassle,” said Stanford.
“For sure.” I withheld that my parents were furious at me for leaving college, so much so they were threatening to quit paying my phone bill, school loans, health insurance, and credit cards, all of which they’d taken on while I got my degree. “Lately, I tell them I already finished a screenplay and I’m shopping it around town at fancy meetings, sipping cucumber water.”
“You and a million others.”
“Yeah,” I paused and took that in. “Wait, you really think it’s that many?”
“I don’t know, man, probably,” said Stanford. “You decide if you want an arm or leg yet?”
I snapped, “I’m still thinking. Also, for future reference, if you don’t know whether millions of writers are shopping screenplays, you shouldn’t say anything. That sort of baseless discouragement is, to be frank, a bit mean and petty. Just because you’re stuck in a warehouse, doesn’t mean you can attack those of us who are out here trying to accomplish things.”
“Listen, buddy. I’m not thinking deeply about you or your life. I got 200 anatomically correct male mannequins to paint pink and ship to London by end of business tomorrow. Wangs of myriad sizes, too. Name a wang size, my client wants it. Also, just between us, I’m not saying that client is Banksy, but I’m also not not saying it’s Banksy. My point is I’m on the cusp of telling you to buy a mannequin leg, or get the hell out.”
“Alright, alright. So, how much for one of those legs with a pointed toe.”
“That’s a rare model, let’s say—$199.99, plus tax. Supply and demand, man, that’s the real root of all evil.”
“Boy howdy,” I said.
I thought of my 71 rejections, Horace’s self-assurance, the work hours I missed to drive there, and Jamaal’s requirement that I refill the tank of his Hyundai. Frustration coalesced in my chest and radiated tension to smaller parts of my body. I handed Stanford my Visa.
I drove back to West Hollywood, leg riding shotgun. My roommates were gone, likely down the street at this comedy club they frequented, or out with women they had less trouble meeting than I did (another struggle I ascribed to writing). I latched the door’s deadbolt, unfurled the futon pad I slept on in the living room, and began making love to the mannequin leg. I did not especially enjoy making love to the mannequin leg, struggling to maintain an erection and keeling over several times throughout. I focused and finished, for the sake of art. Afterward, I experienced roughly 20 minutes of depression, just as the accomplished sitcom creator described. I wiped the leg with a dry paper towel and stuffed it in our coat closet, behind empty boxes we kept in case we had to suddenly move home. The whole day struck me as a great tragicomedy, and I went to bed inspired to turn my ordeal into a film that would make universal the artist’s plight.
I called off work at the comic shop the next day and took my computer to the Starbucks at Santa Monica and Fairfax, which was below a jewelry store with a decorative glass dome on top, next to a Subway, across from Whole Foods. I bought a coffee and scone and found a table with an umbrella outside where I sat in the shade as pedestrians passed by me. I tried to format a word doc like a screenplay, became frustrated, and opted to write a short story instead, not wanting to waste a moment of my leg-given inspiration.
I wrote the rough beginnings of “Mannequin Leg.” For the sake of my parents, I picked a pen name (Zack Quaintance, weird, I know). I also changed Horace’s name to Lawrence and changed it back again, after deciding Horace sounded better and the real guy would neither care nor find out. After a while I stopped, stretched my arms to the sky, and brought my hands down to rub my face, as I’d seen real writers do in movies. I’d done it, I was writing in a coffee shop in LA, unencumbered. My entire life had led to this, the childhood afternoons writing stories in marker on wide-ruled loose-leaf paper at Mom’s kitchen table (cats fighting dogs in jet planes), the weekends in junior high writing a failed novel (dwarves and elves and long-haired warriors), the journal I kept through my fast food years (for biographers when I died). I’d long identified as a writer, craving the romance, and now, four college workshops and 71 lit mag rejections behind me, I’d moved west and become one. Me, a Midwestern kid in Hollywood—classic story.
I lived my dream until about noon, when deep dread throbbed to life inside me. I realized that amid my desperation, I’d paid for the leg with a credit card billed to my parents. A phone call was most certainly imminent, along with demands that I explain the substantial charge at MANNEQUIN GALLERY. Saying I’d bought a pricey apartment decoration was only slightly better than the truth. I was doomed to be cut off, to have my phone deactivated, my Visa statements sent to my apartment. I’d be summoned home, if I was lucky, or left outside homeless in LA if I was not, my tattered dreams shredded by consequences I’d been dodging since I dropped out of college.
I spent a listless week going to work like normal. I forced myself to get down at night with the leg, two or three more times, which helped nothing and impugned my sexual confidence to the point of dysfunction. I was also unable to write again. When I finally had a day off, I told Jamaal my cousin was visiting San Diego, borrowed his Hyundai again, and took the mannequin leg back to the warehouse in Pacoima.
“You’re back,” said Stanford when he saw me. “Oh no, no returns, not on that leg. Can’t do it.”
“What?” I demanded. “You said 30 days if it wasn’t damaged.”
“That leg is soiled, man, I can sense it.”
“It’s not. I didn’t take it out of my car, seriously. I just decided on a new decorating scheme, a minimal concept that really aerates my space, no room for fake legs or anything.”
“Tell you what—Jesse, was it? I have a black light in my shop. I use it when I work with trippy paints, plus for this exact sort of grotesquery, which happens more than you’d think. If I run my light over that leg, and it’s clean, you get your money and I apologize. But if I find the splotches we both know I will?” Stanford held his hand in front of his face and slowly made a fist while baring his teeth at me. “I shred every fiber of your being.”
“What if there were splotches when I bought it? Pre-existing splotches?”
Stanford shook his head, “There weren’t.”
Stupidity, pride, straight up delusion—I have no reasonable explanation for why I did not just tell Stanford forget it, keep my money. I suppose I was overrun with misguided optimism.
“Fine,” I told him. “You say there weren’t splotches, I believe you. I got nothing to hide.”
I followed Stanford Van Buren into the pit of his shop, cold and guilty, contemplating the many sorts of beatings such a man could rain down upon me. I held out hope that his light would fail to reveal my, ahem, malfeasance and prayed the paper towels had cleansed the leg of all evidence. But I knew such hope was foolhardy.
Stanford moved through the space, stopping on occasion to rummage through equipment piles in his eclectic and cluttered shop, sending great clatters of noise echoing to the rafters. I trailed behind the patter of his flip flops like a duckling.
And then, “Okay, you got me. I wasn’t decorating my apartment. I bought the leg to…”
Stanford looked over his shoulder at me as he walked, like, go ahead, Stanford is listening.
“I’m a thief, man. I do this thing where I put a fake ankle bracelet on a fake leg, sneak it into a store, and swap it for a display leg with a genuine solid gold ankle bracelet on it.”
“Bullshit,” said Stanford. “If so, you’d keep this leg and keep doing that.”
“No, you’re right. Dumb,” I admitted. “Truth is I’m not supposed to talk about why I really bought the leg, not yet. See, I have a show on YouTube, and I needed the leg for a bit where I fall down and act like my leg gets severed. Then I film people’s reactions.”
“That’s dumb and hacky,” said Stanford.
“Yeah, dude, I realize that now, which is why I’m returning it. I never even did the bit.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that at the beginning?”
“I have a creative collaborator who’s really picky about secrecy,” I said. “It’s bad.”
“What’s his name?”
My every idea was garbage, devoid of charisma, devoid of believability, unable to make my audience give in to an instinctive trust of a good story, as humankind had for centuries.
Stanford paused at a work bench, opened a drawer, and found his handheld black light.
“Okay, Jesse, last chance to fess up, take your leg, leave here unscathed. Hell, I have a heart, unlike these mannequins, so if you’ll just admit you masturbated on the leg, I’ll give you $100 back and keep the rest for cleaning.”
“I need a full refund,” I insisted. I did, or the outcome with my parents would have been the same.
Stanford shrugged and trundled off to dim the wall lights in order to increase the black bulb’s efficacy. While he inspected the leg, I made sincere vows and wild wishes, if only the universe would let me survive his rage. I wished for patience with my craft, to stay humble amid onslaughts of rejection, to live long enough to read more and establish a true writing routine, even if doing so meant waking before dawn while working two jobs daily, or while tolerating a marketing gig and living with my parents. I vowed to overcome the self-flagellation that crippled me in LA, to give up all this nonsense about cultivating a fetish. I bargained and pleaded internally, and at some point I must have realized writing was not and would never be glamorous. Writing was pain, but for some enigmatic reason, writing was also my only means of engaging with a world determined to curb, dominate, and govern my spirit.
Following a tense wait, Stanford’s inspection ended. He moved swiftly for a man his size and raised the black light up to blind me. I raised a reflexive hand to block, and as I did, Stanford pounded me in the chest below my throat with his open palm. The blow bent me back at the waist, leaving my lower body prone. With Norse severity, Stanford craned the dirty mannequin leg above his head like a golf club and swung a vicious arc directly to my groin, delivering a kick I had not wanted and did not enjoy.
The Viking gifted me a few moments of gasping on the ground before he heaved me up by my underarms and lugged me out the exit. He set me gently on warm asphalt in the sun, my back against the building. My body trembled as I tried to stand but couldn’t. The door closed, then opened again, and Stanford put the mannequin leg down beside me. He bent to brush sawdust from my t-shirt’s shoulders.
Stanford left me with parting words, “Drive safe. Oh, and good luck with your life and your writing, etc.”
I keeled onto my side, destined to be grateful.
Zack Quaintance lives at home with his parents in The Midwest, where he is at work on a collection of short marketing.