Wash’ashore Plastics Museum

From the dock, the sandbar across the bay looked awash with shipwreck survivors dragging themselves from the surf. It was low tide. The bay was a mirror of sky reflecting off the green Atlantic. Corin guided his Boston Whaler through the shallows, hoping to ferry the stranded back to shore. He already called 911 and the Coast Guard. Their nearest boat was an hour out.

It was mid-May. Salt spray kicked up from the boat’s prow. As Corin approached, he noticed the bleached white bodies were fixed in odd poses, hands on hips, rigid, fingers extended towards the sky. Some were inhumanly thin. Others were muscled like bodybuilders. Corin throttled down with the realization. They were mannequins, the same as any other debris ferried down the coast on the Gulf Stream.

Cutting the engine, he nosed into shore.

Corin gathered the mannequins like kindling, stacking each in the boat’s bow. He returned for five trips. It was impossible to fit them all in one go. He couldn’t leave any behind for someone else to mistake for disaster.

#

“What will you do with them?” the EMT asked, his ambulance parked on the overgrown lawn in front of the museum. The man had already radioed in to cancel the approaching rescue boats.

“Add them to the collection,” Corin said, arranging mannequins outside the back door. “Not sure where they came from. They’ve got manufacturer’s engravings on their heels, but I don’t recognize the country, or city, or wherever it is.”

“That’s weird,” the EMT replied. Every local knew what Corin did for work. “What’s it say?”

“Made in Binnsend. Could be European or some place they colonized. That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

“Could you let me know when you figure it out?”

“Sure,” Corin said, positioning the last mannequin in the sprawling crowd. There were over thirty. Corin couldn’t fit them all in the showroom. The renovated cottage serving as Corin’s Wash’ashore Plastics Museum was already cramped, the original pine flooring buckling under displays and dioramas. Every wall hung heavy with debris sifted from the surf.

Once the ambulance pulled away, Corin selected the least worn mannequin and hefted it through the back door. Inside the museum, the air was cool. The cottage was built in the 1800s by his great-great-great grandfather and always felt damp.

With the mannequin cradled under his arm, Corin moved through the display section, past objects that ran aground on nearby beaches. There were yellow rubber ducks and children’s pastel-blue swimming pools, Halloween masks and comic book action figures, life vests, lipstick tubes, and an entire jar of plastic tampon applicators.

The more common detritus was heaped together in aesthetically arranged piles, color coordinated in a rainbow spectrum. The countless straws and plastic soda bottles, the jellyfish-like plastic bags and cigarette filters. He had constructed a Christmas tree out of buoys and fishing line, had built a human skeleton from discarded running shoes. People came for the oddities, but the everyday objects, paired with statistics, were the real educators. The back wall was painted with a mural of the globe. Red and blue arrows traced coastlines, marking major and minor currents. Beneath he listed which carried the most plastic, which deposited the most on the ocean floor.

With his free hand, Corin opened the door to his work space. A dim computer screen cast a glow around itself. The rest of the room was left in darkness. He stood the mannequin beside his crowded desk and flipped on the overheads. The room was nothing but metal shelves of organized plastic, all labeled and cataloged. A single desk stood at its center.

Corin typed the name Binnsend into the search bar. No accurate results appeared. Pieces on raising reptiles and reconnecting with lost friends filled the screen. He altered the search, adding country names and continents, plastic plants and manufacturing hubs. Still nothing. As he pulled a world atlas from his overflowing bookcases, his door flung open.

“Can I have one?” Beth asked.

“Not yet. I need to do research first,” Corin replied, dropping the atlas.

“On all of them?”

“Well, yeah. Who knows if one’s different from the rest.”

Beth, Corin’s wife, operated an art gallery on the far edge of the property. While Corin displayed statistics and educational warnings, Beth made plastic debris into art, mostly sculptures and mosaics constructed from single-use items and bottle caps. Occasionally she carved portraits into disposable cooler foam or Styrofoam take-out containers. Her jewelry sold well. She wore a pair of crescent moon earrings cut from an old flip phone. Her blonde hair was held back by a black bandana.

“Why? Are you afraid I’ll get all the foot traffic?” Beth asked, leaning against the doorframe. It was their usual joke of feigned rivalry.

Nearly three times the number of visitors passed through the art gallery’s doors each summer as they did Wash’ashore Plastic. Both had door counters in their entrance ways. There was no arguing attendance. Corin didn’t debate reasons one was favored over the other. He knew people liked beauty, the clean aesthetic art brought to trash. His raw, almost unfathomable data, turned viewers off. People didn’t like to confront the problem they added to. People did like to buy bottle cap portraits and jellyfish statues. It funded the majority of the couples’ joint venture.

“No. That’s not it. If I break them up, who knows what I’ll miss. The process should be easy. They’ve got manufacturer’s marks. If you go and grind one down to make beer coasters, I could lose something,” Corin said, flipping through the atlas. He ran his finger down the index at the back, searching for Binnsend. It wasn’t listed amongst the B’s.

“You really think one’s going to be that important?” Beth asked. “I’ll keep it intact and use it as a display.”

“Please, just leave them where they are. I’ll figure this out in a week. Two tops. After that you can take as many as you want.”

“Good. There’s no way you’d fit them all in here anyway,” Beth said, waving a hand towards the showroom.

“You never know, people might pay to look through the windows of a cabin stuffed with mannequins.”

“Very voyeuristic.”

“If it gets people talking, I’d be willing to show more than just mannequins,” Corin joked.

“I don’t think that would further the message you’re going for, Corin.”

“Hey, you never know,” Corin said. “People love a good spectacle for the sake of distraction.”

#

Corin was wrong. In a week, he uncovered little information on Binnsend. After two weeks, his notes were mostly blank, the few lines scribbled down crossed out in black pen. He spent his mornings researching the mannequins. Years ago, he would have been shellfishing at such an hour, but a slipped disk in his lower back forced early retirement. In the afternoon he acted as a docent in the museum, leading tourists through his displays, lingering before the current map, explaining how plastic affects the habitats of seahorses, turtles, and other marine life.

Corin traced his finger along the line for the Gulf Stream running up the Eastern seaboard.

“The Gulf Stream deposits most of the plastic I scoop up, but the Labrador current coming down from Greenland also plays a part,” Corin said.

A little kid, tucked beneath his mother’s arm, raised his hand.

“What can I do for you?” Corin asked with a smile.

“What about the other arrows?” the kid asked. “Where does their trash go?”

The map had over thirty currents outlined.

“Well, the simple answer is everywhere. Even though most of our plastic is carried by two currents, you also have the South Equatorial flowing into the Caribbean, then up around Florida. But it’s possible for something to be dropped into the California Current and make its way here,” Corin said, indicating several arrows moving along Antarctica and up the coast of Africa.

“So this stuff could come from anywhere?” the boy asked, pointing to the discarded shoe skeleton.

“Basically, yes. Every year eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean. It comes from every continent. Most are single-use items only used for a few minutes before being thrown away,” Corin said, reciting his environmental pitch. “That’s why it’s important we move away from using things like plastic forks or disposable coffee cups. We use them for a minute, then they clog our waters forever. Doesn’t seem worth it.”

The young boy nodded enthusiastically as his mother tucked a ninety-nine cent coffee behind her back.

The group of tourists thanked Corin after he answered a question about a giant plastic squid that floundered ashore from Japan, then moved off on their own, inspecting other plastic oddities. While Corin stood next to the entrance, waiting for a hoped-for follow-up, the door opened, nearly catching his shoulder. Beth burst in, dirty blond hair flowing behind her. An outrageous necklace made of braided fishing line and dulled fishing hooks clinked against one another around her neck.

“You need to look at this,” she said, lassoing an arm around Corin’s waist, dragging him towards the door.

“I’ve got visitors,” he said, gesturing to the tourists.

“They’re not going to steal anything,” Beth replied, pulling harder.

“What if they have questions?”

Beth looked over the people standing around the glass display cases. “Does anyone have any final questions?”

A chorus of Nopes and All sets greeted her.

Corin let Beth escort him out of the room, into the early summer air. The humid season was just beginning. She led him across the grass dividing her gallery from his museum, towards the water. The two buildings sat on a clear-cut hill that dropped down to a rock strewn beach and the dock where Corin’s boat was moored. It was low tide again. The smell of swamp gases and decaying marine life rose on the wind. She refused to tell him what she had seen as they walked.

“Tell me it’s a mermaid,” Corin said.

“Don’t be a perv,” Beth replied, whacking his arm.

As they drew near, Corin could see that it wasn’t a mermaid, or anything else he hoped for. The bleached bodies of another twenty mannequins crowded the same sandbar as before. Their poses were different, less laid back and casual, more aggressive in their gesticulations. As Beth’s sandals flapped against the dock’s damp boards, he noted flexed arms and running strides half submerged in sand. They paused at the end of the dock, squinting into the sunlight reflecting in silver crescents off the waves.

“Since I found them first, I get one,” Beth said.

“Fine. You’re helping me move them though,” Corin replied, descending into his Boston Whaler. The boat rocked under his weight.

“Why didn’t these show up with the first load?” Beth asked, unfastening the mooring lines.

“There’s a million possibilities. Maybe some got snagged somewhere. Maybe they fell into the ocean later. Maybe someone’s messing with me. Take your pick,” Corin said, starting the engine.

“Hopefully it’s not the last one,” Beth called over the motor. She joined him on the boat’s deck, sitting on the bench spanning the middle of the fiberglass hull. Corin brought the boat to full throttle and skipped along the shallows. The water at low tide was no deeper than five feet. It took less than a minute to nose onto the bar’s sandy edge.

Together they filled the boat with mannequins, fighting the muddy suck of sand while loosening their bodies from the ground. The first thing Corin did when he laid a mannequin down was check its heel. On each, he found the engraving Made in Binnsend.

“I want this one,” Beth said, holding up a female mannequin, her hands on her hips, leaning forward as if questioning an audience.

“Works for me,” Corin replied. “She’s all yours.”

With the last of the mannequins loaded onto the boat, Corin helped Beth settle down into a nest of plastic limbs. He pushed them off of the bar, soaking the edge of his shorts, before heading back to the dock. He’d have to add the new arrivals to the pale throng behind the museum. There wasn’t much room left before they spilled around the corner, coming into view from the parking lot. He didn’t want that. Didn’t want questions without answers. Beth’s mannequin lay across her lap. One less I have to store, Corin thought. He contemplated offering up more, but couldn’t stand the idea of handing over a crucial subject.

#

Every morning, before opening Wash’ashore’s doors, Corin went down to the dock to check if more mannequins washed up during the night. He thought of the trips as a way to clear his head before research. A few minutes alone in nature, the lap of waves, the flutter of birds skimming the shallows. Some days he found nothing. On others, he found entire mannequin families beached on the sand bar. Occasionally, a single white hand would emerge from the surf, but the bodies usually arrived in groups. Corin felt he was spending more time retrieving their bodies than researching them. The bulging disc in his back ached. Over the next month, he added fifty-three mannequins to the herd behind the museum. It was impossible to shield them from the public who flocked to the arrangement of barnacle-crusted models. Corin made up a sign. It looked the same as the others posted around the museum. It read Mannequins. Unknown Origin.

The questions he feared came in every day. He gave the same answers.

“Still haven’t found the place,” he’d say to tourists and locals. “Come back next week. Maybe I’ll have a better idea then.”

And they did come back. People visited the museum in record numbers to view the mannequins. Local news channels ran Corin’s story. The papers interviewed other experts on plastics and ocean currents. None of them could offer further answers, which only brought more viewers from neighboring states.

“Maybe I shouldn’t find the answer,” Corin said to Beth over dinner one night.

She laughed. “That would literally annoy you until you d
e.”

“I know. I just can’t believe I haven’t found anything. I’ve emailed college professors and librarians, map makers, and archivists. No one’s heard of the place. I’m starting to think it doesn’t exist.”

“Or maybe they’re from more than one place, you know, Frankensteined together” Beth offered, cutting into her veggie burger.

“Still doesn’t explain the manufacturer’s mark.”

#

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Corin asked a professor from Harvard visiting the museum. He asked the same questions of everyone with a remotely scientific background: faculty from UMass, geographers from Syracuse who stepped through the museum’s door, molecular engineers. Ever heard of Binnsend? Have you ever located an unknown territory? Have you seen this mark before?

Corin arranged the mannequins around the museum’s front lawn, some in clusters, others by themselves. They looked deep in conversation, laughing over a shared joke, ranting to the sky, pleading with those around to listen. Some seemed joyous in the tilt of their spine. Others looked pained from the slant of their shoulders. Two lay on the ground, their legs eaten out from beneath them by jetty rocks or the ocean floor. Families moved through the exhibit, examining their bleached pigment. Corin left one laying on a table, heel raised so people could see the markings on the foot. Binnsend.

“Sounds like an old English industrial town,” said a freckled woman from Oxford. “That’s not it, though. Not quite. Binnend. It’s missing the S. It was an old oil town that went under. Lots of refineries, but no production factories. I think it might have fallen into the sea.”

The professor pointed to the region of England where the town once stood on the display map. Of course Corin had heard of the place. It came up in every search result, but the woman was the first to note it. He’d researched the town for weeks, searching for mentions of mannequin factories, or any sort of factory for that matter, inside the town. No matter how much he wanted it to be the place, there was nothing. It hadn’t been misspelled.

“Did she find your town?” Beth asked after the woman and her family left.

“Close but no cigar,” Corin replied.

“Sorry to hear that. How many did you add today?” Beth asked, helping Corin move a pair of muscle-bound mannequins to the edge of the display.

“Fifteen.”

“How’s it possible they keep showing up and no one’s heard of this place?”

“Well, something is manufactured in India, stitched together in Taiwan, sent to Moldova to be dyed, then passed along to Spain for packaging. Maybe Binnsend is somewhere in between like you said, some stop we haven’t heard of.”

Corin imagined the sunken city of Binnend, Atlantis-like beneath the waves. Rows of barnacle-stuck factories churned out endless plastic bodies, the continual grind of cogs and gears unaffected by submergence. Waterlogged houses were plastered with seaweed and six-pack racks alike, families of crabs hunkering in eaves. Their rusting infrastructure was so congested with trash that sank from above, odd aquatic survivors sought revenge, letting their own manufactured junk float to land, to remind everyone of who they had been, the mistakes they made and continued making.

But Corin’s waking dreams were rarely accurate.

Corin knew there were probably books he couldn’t acquire and experts he couldn’t contact on the subject. His resources had been exhausted. He’d traced everything from Nikes to life-size Dracula figurines.

Only the mannequins defied identification. Their bodies arranged along the unkempt lawn mirrored the statistics he taught on tours, their overwhelming presence a visual interpretation of the tons of plastic collecting in ocean gyres.

“It’s like I said. You should never rule out a possibility,” Beth added. “That’s how I make art. Endless possibilities. Otherwise, you’re restricted and everything becomes contrived.”

“You’re right,” Corin replied. “I have no idea where these things come from.”

“What do you think of this?” Beth asked, stepping aside from a pairing of mannequins she manipulated. They were sensually bent together, hips interlocked, pelvises brushing. Next to them, on the lawn nearby, she laid a baby mannequin, one of the more recent additions to the collection.

“Plastic begets plastic?”

“Good title. We can work with that.”

“A little crass though.”

“People like crass,” she replied, stepping away from her work.

#

Corin guided his Boston Whaler on its usual route from dock to sandbar. He could see through the dissipating mist only four mannequins hung up that morning. Thank God, he muttered, rubbing his lower back. The day before it had been forty-three. The largest gathering yet. Some of them had been odd; extra limbs, a third arm, two heads, tails and wings, mythic appendages he could barely fathom. He piled the four relatively normal mannequins in the boat’s bow. One had a stunted arm, but that was tame compared to the previous collection.

He headed the boat upwind, cutting through the surf.

Corin hauled the bodies up the slope towards the museum, which was now completely ringed by the bleached models, naked in the early morning fog. They resembled photographs of galaxies, each body a star orbiting the central hub of the building, the building few people entered anymore. They only came for the mannequins, their own likenesses reflected in the thousands, strewn about, representations of what they didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves, but couldn’t ignore any longer.

The mannequins were only there because people wanted to see them, wanted them to exist. They were like the other garbage people subsisted on, the tenth pair of running shoes, the seven straws to match their seven drinks at the bar, iPhone packaging. Part of Corin wondered if it was their desire that dragged the mannequins out of the ocean. Part of him still hoped there was a place on a forgotten map somewhere called Binnsend, the sunken city ever churning.

He continued to ask visitors if they heard of the country, but their answers never changed.

He was surprised to find an ambulance parked at the top of the grassy incline, idling, the lights mute. The blue uniformed EMT he had met when he first mistook the mannequins for drowning victims moved through the gathered forms. Corin figured another false alarm had brought the paramedic away from the station.

The man stopped here and there, noting arrangements, laughing at the sexual couple, the onlooker turning away from the ranting preacher.

“So did you find an answer?” the EMT asked Corin after he offloaded the newest acquisitions.

“No. I mean, if you pulled out a map, I can’t point to a specific place,” Corin replied.

“That’s surprising.”

“Yeah, I was pretty disappointed at first, but I’ve gotten used to the idea of not knowing.”

“Well, at least they aren’t in the ocean anymore.”

“There’s always that.”

The EMT nodded, checked the radio clipped to his belt, and looked off across the field of mannequins.

“Do you mind if I look around for a bit even though you’re closed?” the EMT asked.

“No worries,” Corin replied. “It’s not like you’re disturbing anyone. Spend the day, or come back tomorrow, or the next day. I’m sure more will show up.”

“Hope you don’t run out of space,” the EMT said, walking off through the naked bodies. He was the only dark shape among the white models, pausing momentarily to admire their design, before moving off across the hill. The edge of the group was still far off beyond the museum, bodies drifting back towards the water and the endless pull of the current and the sandbar beyond, empty for the moment.

Corin doubted that would last long.