Merry and Monroe

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Shannon Schuren

She keeps it hidden in a box under the bed.

She only keeps the bed—the same uncomfortable one she’s slept on since childhood—because it is high enough to house the box, which fits snugly beneath the tarnished frame, which holds the coiled springs, which lie beneath the torn mattress, all of it covered by the quilt hand-sewn by her grandmother.

She takes comfort in these layers. They are all that muffle the voice when it calls. Teasing, pleading, wounding. She tries to ignore it, has faced the sofa in the opposite direction so she doesn’t have to look at it. Still, the loft is sparsely furnished. It is easily heard or seen from anywhere in the apartment.

She used to worry that visitors would ask questions.

Luckily, no one has ever come.

She took the loft on a whim, something temporary until she made her mark. The gray walls hadn’t suited her then, but she wasn’t going to be here long enough to bother. Now, ten years later, the only splash of color in the room is the framed photo on the wall of herself at eighteen. She is beaming a smile reserved for moments of utter joy, a smile her lips have long forgotten. She is like a goddess, her blonde hair teased and sprayed and washing over her shoulders like a river of liquid gold, her sequined gown shining like jewels in the floodlights. One arm clutches a bouquet of roses; the other is raised to hold the teetering crown in place upon her head.

Sometimes, she wakes with the smell of the roses in her nostrils—that heady mixture of earth and fruit, of life and promise. Her skin is flushed from the heat of the lights and the thrill of the moment; her head throbs from the bobby pins being jammed against her skull, a pain so delicious it makes her cry.

She was supposed to do more. Change the world, or at least travel it. She’d thought about college briefly, thought more about dating college men. Education itself was for ugly girls with no talent, or so Monroe tells her. Girls who live in one room walk-up apartments on the bad side of town and who eat tomato soup from a can for supper. And sometimes not even for those girls.

She eats over the sink, then rinses the can and plastic spoon before recycling them. It is time to dress for work. Perhaps the blue dress tonight, or maybe the red. It doesn’t matter. She is invisible, even to those who pay to see her.

She kneels by the bed and runs her hand across the bumpy leather of the box. Her fingers fit perfectly into the worn grooves in the plastic handle, and she no longer feels the repeated bumping on her thigh as she moves down the three flights of stairs to the street outside, the weight as heavy and familiar as the door to the vestibule, the snow packed against the curb, her own thoughts.

The bar is full by the time she arrives. She slips in through the side door, catching sight of herself in the glass door. Her hair, once the color of sunflowers, has now faded to the same dull brown as the watered-down rail brandy. Her eyes are as gray as the smoky air inside. She belongs now, just like the regulars hunched protectively over their drinks, or the bartender, wiping the same liquor spills with the same dirty dishrag.

In the back, she wrestles the box onto the table. Her hands are shaky, and she takes a deep breath before flipping open both clasps and lifting the lid.

“Hello, Merry.”

“Hello, Monroe.” She stares down at the dummy. His black hair matches his tuxedo, and the rose in his lapel is as red as his painted grin. His marble eyes glitter with intelligence, or perhaps it is malice. She can no longer tell. “How did you sleep?”

“How do you think I slept, you stupid little twit? You know I hate that box.”

“I’m sorry, Monroe,” she mumbles, as she does every night.

“The blue satin again? I suppose you think it’s charming,” her dummy sneers. “It makes you look like a washed up prom queen. But then again, I suppose that’s what you are.”

“Yes, Monroe.” He’s right, he’s always right.

“I don’t know why you bother. I’m the one they come to see.”

She used to spend this time before the show telling Monroe to behave, urging him to curb his sharp tongue, warning him not to offend the customers. But that was back when she still had a voice.

“Hey, fatso,” Monroe will tell the overweight woman in the front row. “Why don’t you swallow your misery instead of that burger? It’s got a lot less calories.”

And the woman will laugh along with the audience, and Merry will pretend not to see the tears shining in her eyes.

“You over there.” He’ll raise his little fiberglass arm to point at the old man with the paunch under his shirt. “Who do you think you are, Hugh Heffner? That blonde on your arm is young enough to be your granddaughter. I’m guessing you’ve got money, Heff.” And to the blonde: “I don’t care how rich he is, honey, I guarantee you can do better.”

The man will guffaw, all the while keeping one arm wrapped tightly around his date, holding on to her youth and beauty for dear life.

Merry had once been young and beautiful. Special, they’d said, and she believed them. She’d been promised fairy castles and happily ever after, but now she knows those things don’t exist. The world is dark and cold and plastic and people are so hungry for something real, they pay to hear the smallest morsel of truth. Even when it comes out of the mouth of her dummy. No matter how painful or humiliating, for one moment it makes them feel something.

Merry will make them feel something, too.

“It’s Burger Lady tonight, Merry,” Monroe whispers after the show.

She bites her lip. “No, Monroe,” she pleads. “I can’t. Not again.”

“You’ll do it. So shut up with the stupid arguments.”

She closes her eyes for a moment, rests her forehead against the rough brick of the building. She kicks at the snow, now muddied with cigarette butts and vomit, and wishes she’d worn a sweater. It’s cold tonight, though the metal dumpster blocks some of the wind. She fingers one of the rust holes.

“I know what you’re thinking, Merry. But you’re the piece of garbage, not me. Throw me away? After all I’ve done for you?” he hisses as she slams the box shut and fumbles with the latch. “We’re connected, you and I. You can’t escape it. I’m your voice.”

She shivers and drops her gaze, steeling herself against the words and the wind as the back door swings open and the woman from the audience stumbles out into the alley.

“Look at her eyes, Merry. She’s living a fragile, lonely, bloated existence. She’s already dead inside. You know what that’s like, don’t you? She needs you to help her finish the job.” His voice is muffled now, low but still audible through the thin walls of his case, the case she shifts to her left hand so that she can better grip the carving knife in her right.

Once, she thought she’d have more. A handsome man to love her, thousands of adoring fans. But those things are just a long ago fantasy, and she knows the difference. Reality is Monroe’s voice, her dingy apartment, the smoky bar, this rat-infested alley. And the feel of the knife in her hand.

The burger lady moves toward a nondescript blue car parked along the curb. Merry slips from the shadows and falls into step behind her, the knife secured in the pocket of her parka.

She doesn’t like to hurt people. She doesn’t want to be a monster. She’s just a faded beauty queen with a puppet whose voice has long drowned out her own.

She approaches the woman as she reaches her car, careful to avoid the skids of ice along the snow-packed street. “Excuse me, but my car won’t start. Do you think I could get a ride home?”

These are the first words she’s spoken on her own in a long time, and she revels in the sound of her own voice. She throws back her head and laughs, partly from the sheer joy of speaking again, partly to drown out Monroe’s muffled accusations about witnesses on the brightly lit street.

She isn’t worried about getting caught. In fact, she yearns for it. And when it happens, she plans to keep her mouth shut and let Monroe do all the talking. The stupid bastard never can keep his mouth shut. He was wrong. There is an escape, and she’s found it. Who’s the dummy now?


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her stories have appeared in The Storyteller, The Chick Lit Review,, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Her first novel is available at major online bookstores and at her website. E-mail: schurshan[at]

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