I placed the mannequin in front of the window where I sat, at my desk, in front of my typewriter, its hands on the keys. A piece of paper, with the first paragraph of my novel—the lone paragraph I’d had for nine years—rested on the roll. A glass of water waited off to the side. The light was dim, and from the street, it looked like I was sitting at my desk, busy. Home.
Before the dummy, when I’d leave, I’d get robbed. I moved here for the cheap rent, the proximity to schools, and the free internet from the Y across the alley. The first day I went out, to substitute at a high school, my laptop and guitar were stolen. The next day, my electric shaver and alarm clock. When there was nothing left plugged in, the thieves became less discerning. They stole my clothes. They took my dishes and silverware. Then, my toothpaste, my shampoo, and my soap. After that, they stole my toothbrush and washrag. Within a week, the only things left were the disgusting couch, the more-disgusting bed, and the raggedy table and chair that came with the apartment. It was as if they knew: Those things aren’t that fuckhead’s—leave them be.
I called the police. The laptop-guitar time, they came, five hours later. I listed what’d been taken and they laughed, asked me what I was thinking. They were worried, they said, their squad car would be gone when they went outside. I didn’t call again. I complained to the landlord, said he needed security. He told me the only people living there were junkies, tweakers, and hookers. He accused me of hocking my laptops to get high. Then he offered to sell me heroin, said I could stop by his place any time.
Everything I still had, everything I replaced, I had to take with me. I substituted with my spare shirts and socks in my Salvation Army briefcase, along with my Salvation Army plate, cup, and fork. I carried them on the train, from class to class, sometimes across town.
In the Dumpster behind the Salvation Army, I saw the mannequin, bottom half Ying skyward. I’d just bought an old typewriter, nearly thirty pounds, too heavy to lug around. I dragged the mannequin and typewriter home and perched the dummy in my seat, set up the typewriter and cup, then left to buy paper. I came home and everything was there. The next day, I did the same, slightly shifting the dummy. It worked again. And again. I’d solved my dilemma.
I got paid, so I shopped. I bought a knife and a spoon to go with my fork. I bought a bowl. I bought more underwear and a second pair of pants. With my next check I bought a used coffeemaker and a mug. Then a toaster. I invested in disposable razors and shave cream. I bought food. I bought booze. Deodorant. The dummy ensured it was all safe. I named him Derek, after me. If I kept subbing for the rest of the year, I’d build my résumé, get a permanent job the next August, January if I was lucky. I had my novel—I was ready to give it another go.
I met a girl at a bar and we needed a place to go. Even without the stealing, I lived in a tremendous shithole. We convened at her place, but eventually, she wanted to see where I lived. Her name was Laura. She sold insurance. She said we’d be safe; she wasn’t afraid. I introduced her to Derek and she said hello and we went to the other room. The next morning, I woke to Laura at the table, reading my first paragraph. She said it was good and asked if I’d written it after she fell asleep. I told her it was a bit older than that. She suggested I keep going, then kissed dummy Derek on the forehead and we left. I planned to write the next paragraph that night, when I was alone, move Derek aside and just go.
Laura stayed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. We went to movies, ate out, browsed galleries. At my my place we drank wine, had sex, and slept. That first Wednesday morning, I woke to Laura reading new pages of my novel. She acted impressed. Such dedication, she said, to get up and write after she fell asleep. I didn’t know what she was talking about. We’d drunk a lot of wine, though, two whole bottles. I couldn’t remember anything. When I read the pages, I agreed with Laura: It was good. Nine years in, it should’ve been.
For the first time since college, I wasn’t thinking of stepping in front of a train.
My novel grew on Laura nights, her always at the table in the morning, telling me I was brilliant, that she loved the new passages—even on nights we didn’t drink. It became clear Laura was writing my novel, accusing me of doing the same. I felt conflict. The novel was becoming exactly what I’d always envisioned my novel to be—the same plot, the same characters, even the same voice—but Laura had ideas I’d never thought of, wrote in prose I wasn’t capable of. When she’d leave to sell insurance, I’d try to write the next sentence, but nothing came. Then she’d stay over and three, four, even more pages would be on the table the next morning, all brilliant. At this rate, I’d be done within a month. Or Laura would, anyway.
Derek the Dummy started to slouch. His frame must have been busted because he couldn’t sit straight anymore. I propped him between the table and the chair. He stank like wine and sex—the entire tiny apartment did. Often I’d come home to find his head on the typewriter, sometimes with new letters on the page, keys his face must have pressed. Even Derek was writing more of my book than I was.
One day I noticed a spot under Derek’s left arm. It was brown and biscuit-shaped, the exact spot where I had a vicious mole. He had something inside him, something leaking. When Derek became impossible to prop up, I rigged wire hangers on the ceiling, tied some string: Mannequin became marionette. I considered Dumpster diving for a new dummy. I never did. Derek was good luck. I owed him.
I received a full-time offer at one of the high schools at which I’d subbed—an English teacher had been drinking under his desk, fake-dropping pencils and chalk so he could dip down, steal sips during lectures. Laura said we should move in together, her place, mine too small for both our things. I’d purchased a TV. She had a treadmill and a sewing machine and more than two pairs of pants. I could ditch Derek, her neighborhood not the dummy-propping kind. When my lease was up on New Year’s Eve, we’d take that step.
The novel neared completion. I wondered how we would sell it, under Laura’s name or mine. Both? I came up with the idea, that first paragraph, the depressed chimpanzee that could suddenly talk and got elected mayor; the rest was all Laura. By chapter two, the chimp was impeached and the existential narrative about his bodyguard, the soldier back from the war with his face and genitals blown off, took center stage. Somehow, Laura made it work. As soon as she was finished, I’d get her to come clean. I didn’t want to break her rhythm before she typed the last word. I decided I’d remove my name entirely, give her all the credit, except maybe the dedication. To Derek. Maybe For Derek. Best to keep it simple. She’d get her due, I’d have other ideas. I imagined thriving in her shadow.
New Year’s Eve, we packed everything and drank a lot of champagne. We put a pointy cone hat on Derek and filled his cup. We stayed awake for the countdown then crashed. The landlord gave us the extra day for twenty bucks, nobody in line to move in. We could take all my things in one trip in Laura’s hatchback, everything but Derek. I decided to leave him in the apartment, sitting at the terrible table, in the awful chair. He would be my parting gift. I could wave to him when I passed the window, my new school just down the street. Maybe he could keep watch for the new tenants, if any ever came.
New Year’s morning, my novel—Laura’s novel—was finished. I read the last four pages while she showered. I cried through every word (spoiler alert: the chimpanzee died). I hugged her and told her it was the most beautiful ending to a novel ever, that great things were coming our way. She sat down and poured over the new pages, bawling like I had, perhaps harder, as if she didn’t know what was coming. She called me a genius. I joked that behind every great man is a great woman. We made love right there on the for-shit table, pushing the typewriter and the manuscript out of the way. Before we could finish, the table collapsed. We finished on the broken pieces on the floor.
I sent the novel to one of my old professors. She was famous and had said, ten years earlier, she’d hook me up with her agent. She was surprised to hear from me, said she’d forgotten about me, my face a blank. I told her the book wasn’t mine, how it was my lady friend’s, but was the best book I’d ever read. Three months later, my old professor called, said she’d put the book aside, didn’t want to deal with it, but then picked it up the night before, then read the entire thing in one sitting. She sent it to her agent that morning and the agent did the same, read it straight through. He wanted it. Laura would be famous, my professor said. She’d win awards.
I baked a cake. I scribbled Congratulations, Laura! with pink gel on blue frosting. I drew a blobby book off to the side, really just a rectangle. Laura came home from insurance and asked what she’d done. I’d told her I’d sent the novel out and it was a go: We’d be at auction later that week. I had papers for her to sign. Laura laughed, then stopped. She didn’t understand. I told her it was time to admit she’d done this great thing, time to make her famous. She told me to stop. Why was I giving her the credit? Was it because she paid for things early on, before I was making enough for movies and wine? I insisted she cut it out.
Emotions escalated: She called me messed up, demanded I leave. I refused. She grabbed her keys, slammed the door, sped off. She went to her dad’s and we talked on the phone but she still wouldn’t cop to writing the book. She said she’d been researching: A lot of creative-types had conditions; I’d always hated the term. She’d find a good therapist, get the right prescription. I called her crazy right back. Her father showed up a few hours later with three empty cardboard boxes. He instructed me to pack my things, that Laura wanted me out. I told him his daughter was brilliant and she’d created this beautiful thing, that perhaps she was giving me credit because she loved me. He punched me in the mouth. I bled. A tooth fell out.
Everything I had fit into those boxes, minus my TV, which I left for Laura. He asked me where he could drive me to and I said I had nowhere. He asked where I lived before Laura and I described the place by the Y on Division. He told me he’d drop me a few blocks away, that I could walk the rest: He wasn’t going anywhere near the Y on Division. I was smart enough not to tell him Laura had stayed so many nights, had taken the train, walked past the druggies and prostitutes all by herself.
I asked the landlord for my old place. He said he was glad I came back—I owed him three months’ rent. When I inquired as to why, he said I’d left my shit there and he didn’t run a storage facility—he was referring to the dummy. I also owed him four hundred for the table. I told him fine, wrote a bad check, and he slipped me the key.
Inside, I made out Derek, still in the chair, strung over the collapsed table. I put my three boxes in the other room. Something had been dripping from the ceiling—water, I hoped—and the mattress smelled like rot. I unpacked my typewriter. I tried to fix the legs on the table, but it wouldn’t work—I explored hangers and strings. Derek looked on. I told him I missed him. He didn’t say he missed me back. I noticed, however, that he was damaged: The plastic was broken along his jaw, two red lines streaking down from the cracks. A tiny piece of his face sat by his feet on the floor. I told Derek to sit tight. I wetted the sleeve of my shirt under the sink then wiped the red streaks from Derek’s chin. We both felt better.
Suddenly, then, I had the idea for my next first paragraph.