‘Provenance’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
I mirror-checked twice more to make sure, because you always make sure. The white sedan was a few hundred feet back, half swallowed by the heat’s curled air — the same white sedan following us since maybe Ely or Crystal Springs. I’d wanted Carl and I to just be cruising through the desert, unpursued, like people used to. Beads of sweat hung in my hair and left dark spots on my jeans. Sun so hot it looked to be spinning. Carl sat with his left leg hitched up on the dashboard, head to the side — a very teen-girl posture. Whether he got hot, I wasn’t sure. He was dressed in loose tan shorts and a billowing Hawaiian shirt of crimson lotus petals. The oversized joints of his fingers looked like vertebrae. He said he didn’t mind when I gaped at or examined him; that as long I drove him to The City, we were all good.
It must be said that when the mannequins woke up, most people reacted negatively. Some said that at exactly midnight on March 5th the previous year, an aura of light ran from their feet to their heads and a small thread of even brighter light split across their eyes, which then opened. The only real witnesses were folks like janitors, night staff in big department stores and cat burglars. Others said the mannequins had always been alive. They were just hanging out inanimately for no particular reason. Or they were a blight from God, or aliens.
There’d been an American level of violence: mass killings, mannequin legs and elbows strung up on overpasses like beige and grey, and pastel green ornaments.
Carl was a bit of an outlier: a crash test dummy. When we’d worked as linemen down in Vegas — he’d been good at that, unafraid of electricity— I’d asked Carl what the rules were, which dolls woke up, how it worked. He didn’t know. I asked about the dolls that were only legs or torsos. I asked whether he dreamed. And yeah, eventually, I asked about the sex dolls. He said to pray they’d stayed asleep. He said his entire experience came back to him as memories once he’d woken up — a massive lived flood of thought: every accident, every dismemberment and rebuilding.
I scratched at a spot of mud on the dash. “I figure at this speed we’ll make it to Tonopah around dark.”
“Great.” Carl looked at me with his wet, grey eyes.
“I can go faster.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t.”
“What does that mean?”
I scratched my ear. “It means, I understand.”
Carl nodded. “I don’t understand buying this El Camino.”
“You see it and you think: mattress in the back, girl on the mattress.”
“Has it ever held girls and mattresses?”
I fiddled with the rear-view mirror. “It’s just what you think when you see it; it’s what anyone thinks.”
Steam wafted off the road ahead, the horizon a wavering smear. I hadn’t yet found a way to bring up us being followed.
“Thank you for driving me.” Carl put a hard hand on my shoulder, though it didn’t really curl around or cup the shoulder in the way a human hand would, and felt more like being rubbed with LEGO.
Tonopah’s only motel was a clown-themed establishment next to the cemetery. I pulled into the small parking lot and killed the engine; waited a moment to check the road behind us. The white sedan slowed as it came into view, then accelerated into the dusk. I checked my chest for a laser dot or unnoticed poison dart. An old beat-down yellow Datsun hunkered in the long shadows of the motel, and I conceded it was probably not another spy vehicle tracking us from in front. The day almost full dark by then, the sun a candle over the red clay pack. We locked the car and strolled to the lobby, Carl walking behind with eerie stealth. I still expected him to ratchet and release gouts of steam.
Once inside, I paused a moment, anxious. Shelves of clowns decorated the wall behind the counter. Clowns of every kind: porcelain, hand sewn, factory stuff — all with their faces in blue and red and chemical purple. Carl’s sidelong glance, even with a plastic face, told a story. I had no guesses as to how he felt about these smaller doll-types that hadn’t awakened, and it didn’t feel like the time to ask.
I asked for one room with two single beds, money being tight. The lady took my credit card and gave me a crinkle-browed look over her glasses. She hardly registered Carl. I’d seen that before. People dealing with it by ignoring. Or maybe she pegged us as some kind of freak thing and wanted no part. Lord knows, it happened. She could think what she wanted. I knew for a fact Carl had no penis from a shared shower at the YMCA in Vegas a few weeks back — one of those open showers full of dick and soap. He’d chosen the shower right next to me. Steam clouding everywhere, but I still saw the smooth slope of his pelvis. Water ran off him in an unsettling film.
The room smelled of cigarettes, peach juice, vulcanized rubber. Carl threw his old backpack on the bed furthest from the door — a kind of rugged, burn-marked canvas pack from the 70s. I’d seen him take stuff from it: a red 3rd gen toy Camaro, a map of California, several pieces of what may have been quartz or fossilized honeycomb.
The room was warm. I settled on my bed over the blankets, pillows stacked up behind me in a soft ramp. My feet stuck over the edge of the bed. I flipped the TV to a documentary about the Amazon rainforest — pink dolphins, an anaconda strangling a caiman. I kept the TV muted.
Carl plunked onto his bed and fished a small white bottle from his pack. He squeezed an amber liquid over his left knee joint — more like a spindle than a human knee. He pushed this oil into the crevices of the mechanism, all the while extending and pulling back his lower leg, working it in.
Carl did not once glance at the rainforest on the television. The caiman died with a sad little whip of its tail.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
He looked at me while rubbing in the oil. “I’m like you.”
“How do you mean?”
“Old.” He hit his knee with the palm of his hand.
I liked that about him. Carl wouldn’t be nice to humans out of fear they’d dump acid on him or put him in a cage to fight dogs, or any of the other terrible shit that had gone on. Carl had been in four hundred crash tests. Carl didn’t care.
I sank deeper into the bed. On the TV, a blue fish about forty feet long with eyes like little galaxies. The room was sweltering. The overheard fan spun slow, like a whisk.
“I got a question,” I said. “And don’t lie to me.”
“Is there good reason for someone to be following us?”
A blot of silence.
Carl glanced at the window and then back to me. “You ever hear about the Gainesville incident?” He began oiling the other knee.
“Wasn’t that some of you killing a bunch of people in a community centre?”
“I heard about it.”
“Well, the guy behind it was like me — a dummy.”
“And he was from the same facility.”
I took this in.
“He was small, a ten-year-old analog.” Carl stared at the wall-painting of a beagle running through sunflowers. “He would sit in the back of Grand Caravans, the son. I’d be in the front, the dad.” He nodded and shook his head. “On all the no-seat belt tests he’d fly by me through the windshield, sometimes even with his limbs popping off. I’d end up with his arm or leg or ribcage in my lap. Sometimes his whole body would be folded into a bundle on the dash or he wouldn’t quite make it through the windshield and instead be stuck halfway, pierced all over with glass, looking at me.”
A solvent smell from the joint oil wafted over to my side of the room.
I fanned the air. “Jesus.”
“You get used to it.”
“So this guy was like part of your friend group?”
“We’re just from the same facility.”
“And maybe the government thinks your facility is all terrorists?”
“I don’t know.” Carl began oiling his neck.
“And now we’re going to the mannequin city and they are following us.”
“Seems so. Unless you’re wrong and it’s just a car.”
“I don’t think I’m wrong.”
“No one ever thinks they’re wrong.”
A moth flew in the window, then thought better and flew out.
“What is so special about this utopia city anyway?”
Carl sliced the air with his hand. “Everyone keeps calling it that.”
“Yeah, a utopia. You have those? What are their names?” His voice was dry, ceramic. “It’s like you want us to think it’s great so we all fuck off there.”
Darkness had fallen beyond the open window. The stars and blackness pulsing. Gentle wind over my toes from the window.
Carl stashed the oil bottle and zippered his pack. He stretched out on the bed with his ankles crossed, arms unnaturally straight at his sides.
I rolled off the bed onto all fours. On the carpet, a wet patch — goo. I didn’t inspect closer and wiped my hands on the bed frame. I stood and walked to the curtains, pulled them back a few inches. The parking lot lay deserted, a gentle slope of rocks and discarded drink containers. No white sedan — not in sight at least: maybe around the building; maybe down the road with a telephoto lens, a high-powered rifle, a .306, a .50cal. Handmade bullets the size of plantains, with our names engraved. I pulled the curtains closed.
“See anything?” asked Carl.
“It’s just pretty out there.” I shuffled back to the foot of my bed and stripped to my underwear. I left my clothes in a pile on the floor, and lay down on the covers.
Carl flicked off the bedside lamp and the room blackened.
“So, this city,” I said, talking to the dark.
Carl didn’t respond, and I didn’t repeat myself.
I thought about when Carl had asked what facility I came from. He liked that word. Where I’d done all my crashing and being thrown and having my body folded neatly on the dash. I’d told him about a weathered box of a facility in North Dakota west of the Missouri River with sky the color of an undersea skeleton. Rural. Little to do. We only tested small trucks that kept running when you pulled the key from the ignition. Trucks with rusted fissures in the floor, showing the blur of the road as you sped along. When you hit the brick wall in these trucks, you’d maybe just bang around the interior of the cab until all your bones broke like plates. In these trucks you had another sixteen-year old analog in the cab and maybe an analog newborn who constantly cried, and had a red and swollen patch of skin below her nose, and socks with worn and blackened soles because they were the only ones she had, and you’d all be flying through the air in slow motion, internal gyroscopes recording critical data on velocity and newtons of force, and seeing everything so clearly. Researchers came to many conclusions there.
Next day, I once again strapped my suitcase into the El Camino’s truck bed with bungee cords and we peeled out around 9 a.m, before the sun began to cook. No sign of the white sedan.
I’d found that the Camino drove better if you introduced the heat of the day more gradually. She struggled when I brought her up to highway speed starting at noon. If I got her going in the morning, she’d purr across the desert all day with no fuss.
Around 11a.m, we stopped for gas at a decrepit mom and pop station with a giant rotted-out red popsicle by the door. The place looked industrial, attacked by zombies and staffed by guerillas. Carl undertook pumping as I strolled inside to pay and buy beef jerky and water. A small man with a very yellow shirt watched me from behind the counter as I riffled through the jerky looking for the oldest best before date. Old beef jerky chewed better. Several of the packages were at least a year expired. I scooped them into my armpit, then went and got bottles of water from the cooler, held them tilted against my chin.
The cashier noticed how old the beef jerky was as he scanned them. I saw it in his eyes. While my card processed, I kept an eye on the lot through the greasy windows. No sedans of any kind, no armored personnel carriers. My insides coiled, ready to flee or hide amongst the candy bars. The sun swung over the station like a torch. Indecipherable black lines of spray paint coated the gas pumps. Carl pumped with both hands on the nozzle as if it might spiral out of control.
From the edge of the parking lot, a lady mannequin in a gold sequin dress walked into view. A waif with chocolate skin, thick silver strands for hair. She went straight over to Carl. He still wore the Hawaiian shirt and loose shorts, and these billowed around him as he focused on pumping. The lady mannequin—Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret — looked tiny next to him. Carl described himself as an 81%, which was the percentile of adult male American that his body was meant to represent in car accidents. Almost six foot, 180.
She walked right up to him and with a tiny brown hand, the lady mannequin touched his shoulder. For a moment they stood in the awning’s shadow, two figurines against the red background. I could not see their lips move. She turned away, then turned back. He scuffed his foot against the dirt. She went on tiptoe in her pearlescent white tennis shoes and leaned into him. They stood even closer, then, she with her face in the crook of his shoulder.
As I cracked the station door and headed outside, she noticed me, nodded in my direction, and walked off to a Hyundai parked at the corner of the building.
“Nice girl?” I said to Carl on my way around the car.
“She seemed to like you.”
“They always like us dummies.”
“Don’t I know it.”
He opened his door and got in the car. “It’s funny.”
“What is?” I stashed the bottles of water behind the seat and hopped in.
“The other kinds, they see me as special,”
I buckled in, started the car. “Special?”
“I guess like a soldier, or a veteran.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Way I see it, you served.”
Carl looked over the red expanse. “Thanks, man.”
“Just the crash tests ones?” I pulled out, the Caminos’ tires spitting dust.
“Others, too,” Carl said. “The surgical replicas. The Air Force dummies.”
I rolled down my window to feel the wind. “We all need reverence.”
“Know what they had before me?”
We drove in silence for the next hour. At one point, Carl ended up with a bright green caterpillar on his hand and I pulled over to let him release it onto a desiccated sprig of grass by the road. I knew to do that by then — Carl and his bugs, his worms, his precious vermin.
The country thickened, became more geometric as we progressed: rock patterns, living grass, actual water. Scarce trees. We’d soon pass into California, into Benton. The mannequin utopia was supposed to be outside Mono City on the shores of the lake. Not too far, really. We’d only been on the road a couple days from Phoenix, some detours, places Carl wanted to see but hadn’t had the chance: Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase — mostly stuff that started with Grand. We took it slow at the canyon. Carl had stood with his toes over the edge, like nothing might ever happen. He said the canyon showed the power of rivers.
He had an interest in history. Would regale me with his own — Samuel W. Alderson, the inventor of crash test dummies, being a kind of father figure to him. He called him Sam. Sam went to Berkeley. Sam did doctoral research under Robert J. Oppenheimer. Did I, by chance, know who that was? Fancy that. Their early moniker: medical phantoms. To test how wounds formed, the effects of radiation on tissue, bodies under immense acceleration. Sam developed missile and torpedo guidance systems. Sam invented spaghetti. Sam saved countless lives.
Carl and I met on a crew doing a new housing thing outside Vegas — a pointless mission, running poles out to a huge slot of desert surrounded by other slots of desert, the whole place without water or food or life. Everything a shade of pale orange, yellow, ash — the homes partially built, prefab boxes, four hundred thousand a piece. And you knew by looking that it would all blow away soon. The houses abandoned once the desert became uninhabitable.
The foreman brought Carl on the team because he could work long hours, not get tired and not need food or water. Most of the guys kept it professional and would only talk about the plastic man from a distance. One day, finishing up, some idiot crane operator on too much coke took out one of the powered poles. I got hit by eighty or ninety milliamps. Thrown like kindling. A great weight closed around my heart. All I remembered was an overwhelming sense of things tumbling away, the ground now far below, hundreds of feet, then miles. Sharp smells of burnt hair and what I, at the time, thought were the very molecules of the air combusting over me into a sort of plasma. No one would come for me as I lay there all burned up and unable to move. Then came Carl, beautiful and unconductive, stepping through the wires, currents arcing bright around his feet. He picked me up over his shoulder and walked to the first aid trailer. My angel.
Before the trip, I’d been back in Phoenix dealing with my sister, Silla’s, eviction. People liked to think that after 08’ banks didn’t take anyone’s house anymore, that there’d been some kind of moratorium. The Camino great for these sad obligations. I helped move her to the little apartment she’d found underneath a chiropractor’s office that advertised a cure for asthma, autism, homosexuality. A part of town with concertina wire on the phone booths. We did the heavy stuff first, solved the complex twisting geometry of loveseat and doorway. A high five. A hug. Hopeful chatter about retraining, becoming a hospital orderly. I told her to get out of the sun, I’d deal with the rest, the fish tank. Walking down the stairs with the fish tank, I tripped and crashed into the wall. The tank shattering on the bricks. Rush of water. Water over my arms, my shirt, my pants. I stood very still, then, leaned against the wall. Goldfish ran through my fingers and landed on the concrete and sizzled. I didn’t flail at the tiny fish. Didn’t cup my palms. Made no move to save them. And it all felt so reminiscent, that it had happened before, only the other time I caught all the fish. Caught them all, every single one. Silla stood in the shadows of the apartment’s doorway holding the vacuum cleaner. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t say the fish had meant a lot to her or that this was all a symbol of some bigger breaking and falling onto a hot surface. Eventually, she just breathed big, looked at her feet to avoid the spread of broken glass, and went deeper into the apartment and out of sight. The shattered remnant of tank still sat cold in my hands, beads of blood and water dripping from my wrists, fish at my feet flipping around or lying still, their scales already dull.
The white sedan had caught up again — the pure white gleam of it in the rear-view, almost familiar now, like it would be sad if they lost us. I pointed at the mirror. Carl turned his head to see, nodded like it couldn’t be helped. We kept on. What did they want? The Gainesville thing, yeah, snippets of the news had trickled back into my head. A community centre was hosting a mannequin hate group. They went around with bottles of concentrated acetone and splashed it on any awakened plastic people they could find. Left many dolls with half limbs, huge holes in their bodies, feet turned to puddles. And so this group of dummies and mannequins, led by the one child-analog dummy from Carl’s facility, waited until halfway through the hate group’s meeting on a bright spring evening, then sealed the doors with bailing wire. They hot-wired the members’ cars and ran hoses from the exhaust pipes up into the ceiling of the community centre, their light bodies easily scampering to the ventilation ducts where they fed the hoses into the room and waited until everyone stopped trying to get out.
We pulled over for lunch next to a pretty roadside creek — one of those shallow creeks with ripples in the water as it passes over beds of stones. These kinds of creeks always had rare pockets of deeper black water where the fish lived. I breathed in the rich mud smells of rock slime and algae. The sun hung over us, a hot puncture. I’d packed a small cooler with the makings for baloney sandwiches. I always offered Carl food, despite his always refusing. But it felt wrong to not offer. When you’re sharing a drive with someone, you offer.
“Sandwich?” I asked.
“Maybe next time.”
We both sat on the rough grass beside the creek, our legs splayed. I made a sandwich and sat with it resting on my thigh. The white sedan again. It slowed in passing us and continued on to maybe wait around the bend or in some cranny amongst the trees and shrubs. The water skiffed over the rocks with a sound like beads in a Tupperware. I ate the warm baloney and hoped Carl hadn’t had anything to do with the massacre. Didn’t seem the type, I figured. But what did I know about types? About people or non-people?
I peeled off my sneakers and socks, scooted down the incline and let my heels sink into the icy water. The riverbed’s stones dug into my skin. Carl slipped off his shoes too and followed suit, even sighing as water touched the grey plastic of his feet.
“Do you die?”
“I don’t know.”
We sat for a while listening to the sound of water, gentle wind across grass, a high-pitched keening from air passing over the hot road behind us.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’m only a year and a half old.”
I nodded. “When you put it like that.”
“We’re all just a year and a half old.”
“Maybe they’re just following to be following.”
“Maybe,” he said and swished his ankles in the water.
“It’s cold,” I said.
“I can feel temperature.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I just meant like, it’s cold, it’s cold.”
“It is cold.”
“And what if they take you?”
“Take me and do what?”
I didn’t know what.
We sat this way for another twenty minutes until it got too hot in the sun. I packed the cooler as Carl clamored up the bank. The wind had died out. Thin willows and grass hung limp, like they’d been poured.
Back on the road I fell into one of those comfortable driving stupors where you aren’t really awake but the driving is rather enjoyable and effortless. We got into California and kept on. Carl again had his foot up on the dash. He was funny. It took about twenty minutes for the white sedan to pop up in the mirror. I sped up and Carl looked at me. I slowed down. Now only a few miles from where the city was supposed to be, though I had no idea what to expect. We passed areas of cleared land, trees ripped out and stacked in piles, holes dug by excavators, swathes of trucked-in gravel. Signs of infrastructure: naked electric poles, culverts, white septic pipes sprouting here and there from the disturbed soil.
“We getting close?” I said.
We passed a car being driven by a short mannequin whose head barely poked above the wheel. He wore a crisp blue polo, maybe junior Gap or American Eagle. I’d heard most of them kept the aesthetic they had when they woke up. Soccer mannequins. Swimsuit mannequins. That type of thing. An identity thing. Which meant what for Carl?
Up ahead, near a thick stand of pines, a turn off.
“Turn here,” said Carl.
I turned and we went into deeper forest. I could see Mono Lake through gaps in the trees, the teal sparkle of it like a low frame rate film. Some mannequins on the side of the road, walking in groups, or by themselves, or couples, hand in hand. Buildings now too, mostly trailers or prefab jobs — whites and greys and pale greens. A pastel neighborhood. And behind us, back near the turn off, what looked like some taller mannequin types dragging something across the road, a hose or portable speed bump or strip of spikes. And then those same mannequins moving off the road in the way people move off a road to lie in wait.
“Yeah?” he said, looking around, smiling at the trees and buildings.
“We’re fine. We’re great.”
“So, where do I take you?”
“It’s up here by the water, you’ll love it. I’ll tell you when.”
So we kept on. More and more mannequins appeared — all sizes, grey, black, navy blue. Tall mannequins. Mannequins with no arms. Their movements smooth and surreal. A city materialized. Paved streets. Cute wooden gazebos on the shores of the lake. One three-story building. A sodded grass area with a swing set and merry-go-round. Small beige and sky-blue children swinging there. They seemed able to swing higher than any human children I’d seen. The lightness, maybe. That or they didn’t fear falling, or had hopes to go completely around the bar like I’d always fantasized about as a child. Never did do it. The sun overhead passed in and out of cloud, frame by frame. A pulsing to the light. More buildings now. One with a radio tower. One with a giant muffin. Carl had rolled the window down by now, his hand out it in the breeze just to feel it.
Maybe he had a home here. That girl from the gas station, them both with long intertwined histories. Love.
He’d have told her his beginning; how he woke in darkness hanging from a plastic hook. The hook wedged in his back, in the slot meant for hooks. The others also on hooks, coming awake. And the fierce rattling as, one by one, they struggled to free themselves. They writhed and swung like pendulums. And one by one they tore free and fell to the floor with a crash to lay there, a pile of limbs, still unable to stand, staring at their own legs, their own hands, each other. And since they couldn’t yet laugh there was no laughter, and since they couldn’t yet cry, there were no tears.
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