He is a salesman, he tells people, and it’s more or less true. He tells them his name is Gray, when they ask, which it isn’t, and they rarely do. He says the past doesn’t matter and he leaves it at that, but it does, it matters, and it is always there, some shred poking out, a thread waiting to be pulled and its haunted treasures unfurled for all.
In the front hall, in a closet, behind the coats and things, boxes containing unimportant memories, there is a bag filled with money. Bundled bills in mostly large denominations. A case like a doctor might have in some bygone era, the kind that might be dragged from house to house as such an archaic medical practitioner checks mending bones or as he might listen to strained, tubercular lungs. The tools of this trade are gone, replaced with those bills in small stacks, the bag clasped and hidden, tucked behind the mildewed baubles of life.
The house is a dry, quiet thing tucked in among other houses of its antique epoch. These few square blocks of yesteryear rest in a sea of suburban boredom, houses and homes born fully formed in long rows, each cast from the same horrific mold, not like these creaking husks that were here before and will be here, reticent and stoic, long after the others have spun drunken and canting to dust. He rents the house with cash for almost nothing. Its rooms are furnished with musty flea market finds and a hodgepodge of kitschy relics. Lamps crafted by bored geriatrics in community classes, tables cobbled from foraged refuse by aspiring or failed artists. And a painting. The painting, he calls it, because it has no name, or if there is a name it is not written or saved, is lost to existence and its fickle memory. A field of tall grass, bent in the hand of wind, each brushstroke there to tell its story. In the middle distance is a figure, a dark line with a hat pulled low, the suggestion of a man there among waving stalks. A fixed touch of structured lines at the horizon could perhaps be a farmhouse, remote and inconsequential.
He sits looking into the painting some nights, those nights when he can’t sleep, when he knows the stranger is coming.
He is a salesman, and the boon he peddles to those who ask is the smiling lie of his own persona.
The fire in the east is a new day’s start. Mowers start early, big industrial monstrosities that rattle windows in distant frames and stink of gasoline for two blocks, three blocks. Sprinklers will be on in a half hour, automatic spritzes mimicking a light morning rain, but for now there is nothing. Later there will be crowds, kids playing on playground swings, jungle gyms. Nannies will read paperbacks off to the side, some talking with each other, sharing pedestrian tidbits about their lives, their employers, others only sitting with vacuous stare, waiting for something else. Old men will sit at tables, wooden park tables or cut stone slabs, cheap cardboard games set out, chess or other finds. The old men smoke, tipping burnt ends in the grass or just letting lengths of dead ash hang from the end wedged between bent, gnarled fingers as they contemplate moves. People will eat lunches, accountants and lawyers. Scorekeepers with paper bags. Sandwiches wrapped in plastic, white bread and a single piece of lettuce with cheap meats between. Meals for the frugal or the dieting. Sometimes a single piece of fruit.
This will be the world, but it isn’t the world yet.
Gray sits with eyes closed. The bench at his back is damp from morning dew. Hands rest on the thinning knees of once fine slacks. The seams of his aging three-piece are loose, fraying or frayed from countless years of faithful service. Dapper in a past life. Lines in his flesh tell the story of years. Eyes move behind lids,
Soon they too are gone.
Gray opens his eyes to find a lifting blue tone in the sky. The fire has subsided, appeased. A woman in muted sweats jogs along a sidewalk that rims the park. She sings every third or fourth word from a song playing in her head. She turns a fleeting smile to Gray as she passes his perch. He returns the kindness, but she is already gone.
Diner noise makes background music. The pleasing chime of silverware on glassware, the idle chatter of people and lives, cars somewhere in the distance. Gray sits at the counter, always at the counter, a glass of water in a chilled glass placed atop a folded napkin. The water is complimentary, handed out to anyone who wants, but he pays a dollar whenever he orders.
“It’s only fair,” he tells whoever is working the counter; the fat man with the spacey glaze in his eyes, the young woman who used to manage a bank, who knows how she ended up here, the geriatric miscreant with the sly look, sometimes others. There is a turnover rate, a come and go of crew to man this ship, but Gray is there, always there at his post.
He holds the paper folded at the crease, eyes moving with meticulous care over article after article, no hurry in their appetite to devour the world and all its secrets one blurred line of ink at a time. Others tap keys, look with deep longing into glowing screens of phones, play games clutched in bent hands. All around patrons are enveloped in media, a bottomless bombardment of the instant update. The only newspaper is the one in front of Gray.
The man across the way leans forward,
Gray’s eyes continue their steady march across the page as a terse, measured query finds its way from his lips.
“Help you with something?”
The man across the way points one finger at the paper.
“I see that when you’re done?”
Seconds go by, maybe a dozen, not many more, and the droning march of eyes on page ceases.
“You can see it now.”
Gray folds the paper over again, hands it off to a passing waitress with a point and a nod and she turns, not pausing, only setting the paper in front of the man across the way before she moves on, lost in a sea of eggs and pancakes, orders and checks.
The man across the way looks over the crossword, flips to the front, goes back to the crossword. He meanders, a man unsure of his place, taking in bits of stories but never staying for the full show. Gray watches, sipping water.
“How would you know?”
The man looks up.
“If I was done. How would you know?”
“With the paper?”
Gray doesn’t respond.
“You’d get to the end.”
Gray handles the man’s response, tasting its intricacies in his mind while his face remains placid.
The man waits for there to be more, but no more comes and he goes back to mercurial perusing of yesterday’s news. Eyes widen by something they find. Gray sets down his
“Anything else, Chester?”
Words go unheard as the man reads. Chester. His clothes are sharp, the pressed attire of a man who should be somewhere right now but isn’t. Dark shirt, collar buttoned, no tie or coat. A thick neck protrudes from that collar. When he speaks there drifts an accent afloat somewhere just behind the words, the faint touch of somewhere else. It is the sound of a city on the coast, some hard place that has exiled this wayfarer, doesn’t want him back. He watches the room even as he reads, but he doesn’t take notice of Gray, and he does not see Gray watching.
A waitress stops by the place where Gray sits on most days, maybe a waitress that has served him a hundred times before. She smiles, pleasant but distant, and pours from a pitcher to fill his glass just as many others have, as they always do. No one remembers a time before Gray came to this place.
The air in the room is thick with must. Mildew, dust, older things permeate the stillness, rings of barely visible miasma wandering the ether. Gray sinks low between the arms of the chair. The painting presides unprejudiced over stark drama not yet played out, that aged canvas waiting for something more. Gray looks into that unchanging image, the
A knock comes at the door. A long breath in and a slow breath out and he answers with the same feigned lack of feeling he’s practiced for years.
“Hello, Gray,” says the stranger.
A woman sits in a sun-filled diner with
“She somebody you know?”
Gray turns. Chester sits across the island from him, a vaguely interested look on his face as he waits for Gray to answer the question. Gray holds up the paper, offering this solemn token as
“No, thanks,” says Chester with an unwarranted shake of his head. He looks first at the paper still hanging in awkward expectation and then at Gray whose face gives nothing away. “Can I ask you something?”
Gray gives only the slightest shrug as he puts down the paper.
“How old are you?”
Gray doesn’t blink or look away, doesn’t move at all. He breathes in and holds, breathes out and speaks.
“How old do I look?”
“Upper forties, maybe a spry fifties. Like that.”
Quick nod from Gray.
“Okay,” he says.
Chester sits a moment, a thought not quite ready to come loose. And then it does.
“You know anybody who died?”
Chester looks away, considering the point or just waiting.
Noncommittal. He focuses on the paper in front of Gray, letting his eyes have someplace to be. Gray looks back, but Chester has receded and whatever thought was there is now obscured by too much time. Gray turns to the woman, who has folded the piece of paper and stuffed it into an envelope. An address is written there and covered by a torn wedge of masking tape. A new address is written on top, but the letters from the old show through as ghosts of another place. She asks a man working at the counter if they sell stamps here, but she knows they do not. Gray watches as she walks out the door, stuffing the envelope into a hip pocket as she goes.
“A friend of mine died and no one called. I had to find out about it in the paper.”
“Don’t read the obituaries. They’re only ever depressing.”
“I don’t,” says Chester.
A moment becomes a minute as such utter pause holds the room in
The moment soon passes, the vacuum left behind quickly filled with the return of a
“You always wear that suit,” he says. “Nothing changes.”
Gray stares back without real commitment.
“Chester,“ he says, and waits. “Always has very little to do with me.”
A moment passes by. Gray turns to the window to let his gaze move over his own reflection, but the sun is so bright and where his reflection should be there is instead the world still moving on the other side of the glass.
A hatter in suspenders measures the head of a shriveled elderly man. The hatter digs through a case, a finger running over fabrics one at a time, searching for something or simply feeling, experiencing. He flips through a book, pointing out patterns and styles and chatting up wants and tastes with the elderly. The elderly nods or
The shop is a cozy burrow here, a den of open space surrounded by walls hung high with hats of all ilks, but beyond the door exists a cold wasteland of pre-cut suits lined in row after row of heartless, unloving racks. Other rooms lie along that open room’s walls, brief oases in a fashion desert, quality booths adorned with works by artisans who ply their trade in unlabeled obscurity, artists destined to be forgotten. Tailors and their underlings mend or cut fabric, prepare for greatness that which is as yet
Gray sits waiting for the hatter to return, waits for the hatter to finish with the elderly before getting to him. Each man sits in identical chairs, each seat suffering from the same forlorn degradation, years of asses worn into the material. The elderly flips a hat in his hands, a dented felt thing, dark brown and not at all like the others in the room. The hook from which it is taken shows stark among the others left behind, the wall of hats with nothing inside and in that one spot a dead space, blank among the mounds of cloth.
“Do I know you?” asks Gray. He looks into the elderly as he speaks his question, unsure if he’s asking because the question might collect a yes or if he’s merely tossing away time as an exercise in frivolity.
The elderly goes on turning the hat. He speaks.
“I want this hat.”
His eyes take in the worn but sturdy cloth. Bent fingers move along the crooked length of brim that leaves the shape off balance and odd.
“I want to take it with me. I want this hat, but it’s old, it’s ragged, dog-eared, and there exists a point when you can’t go back to those things once you’ve left them. You follow?”
Gray nods, not sure if he understands, only wanting the man to go on.
“I haven’t owned a nice hat
The question sits a moment, Gray not noticing or not committed to answering, finally speaking in his own time.
The elderly spreads cracked lips and
“Fair enough. I have. I’ve been in
He looks at the walls which surround. He doesn’t wave a hand or even nod, and Gray does not turn from the dry husk of humanity sitting before him.
“You don’t talk much.”
Gray says nothing.
“I met a man like that once. Not a talker at all. I was in a place I didn’t know, wasn’t there long before I got moved on, but I heard stories. About this guy, yeah?”
His mouth opens to go on, but breath stops, held in. The hatter enters at a professional glide. From a pocket is produced a length of
The elderly looks at Gray, acknowledging the inevitable continuation of his own story. Gray only looks back, awaiting the flood of words that the elderly is about to
“He worked in the prison library. Old guy, very old. One of
The elderly stands and stretches as if he’s been sitting for days. The bent felt hat is placed with unsettling tenderness on the now empty seat. He moves around the room in slow circles, examining the uncalculated varieties of headwear found on each wall.
“Legends are like that, you know? The little truths that hold them together get mixed in with the mortar, the bullshit of it all. You could ask anybody there, nobody could tell you how long the
He plucks a hat from the wall, one among many, an old-style derby, that doesn’t match, barely fits, should look silly but somehow doesn’t. Cloth so black it looks wet. He runs a finger along the brim, tips the end when he gets there with a smile.
“They said that
A slight gap appears in his words as he notices the dented hat where he left it. He retrieves it with one hand, holding it out before him, looking for something or just looking, then pulls the arm in, the hat resting against his chest as he finds the dangling strands of his stray musing.
“Bunch of bored criminals telling stories. I like that story. I like it because it sounds like someone didn’t think it through, yeah? How is this old guy always there, always older than anyone else? Wouldn’t there be records? Paperwork showing when he arrived? Say he’s got a life sentence, even that shit can’t go on ad infinitum. What’d he do, this librarian? I like it because it sounds like bullshit. It sounds like bullshit, but there’s just something there, something about the thought of a kindly old man handing out books with that hard, mean look, in the way he never blinks, how he gives a smile that’s wrong in some way you can’t wrap your head around, there’s something in the way the mind can touch that story and immediately want to wave it away that I. Just. Like.”
That rasping laugh comes again, a dry, ugly thing.
“Also, no,” says the elderly.
“No, you don’t know me.”
The elderly drops the dented hat in Gray’s lap. He does not pay for the derby he wears as he leaves. When the hatter returns he finds each chair empty.
It’s the end of the universe, thinks Gray, as he stares into the dense and endless black coffee he didn’t order. This is what the end of the universe looks like. The edge. This is what the edge of the universe looks like, he thinks to himself, corrects himself, but the difference in phrasing is negligible. He slides the cup to the side but doesn’t send it back. He puts a dollar underneath and looks away, tries to forget it’s there.
She walks by. She, he thinks. Her. He could give her a name, make one up, pluck a string of letters from the heavens and apply their delicate frame to her, present it to her like some unwrapped, unplanned gift, but he prefers her as she is, an ethereal creature passing rapidly by in a world parallel to his own, a momentary
She sits at the same table as before, placing in front of her a sheet of paper or several sheets stacked, extras in case she makes a mistake. The pen moves with delicate flair, the intimacy of familiarity, moving along its fluid thoughts to reach a point that lies somewhere in the middle distance, an idea
The crisp sound of ruffled paper shakes the moment apart. Chester holds a newspaper, page folded to a crossword. The tender chime of a bell marks a door’s opening. The noise of the world breaks upon the shores of diner walls, a scant second and then it has passed, the door shut once more and the world held at bay. A stranger crosses the room, a smiling relic in a fine coat and hat. He leans across a counter to share a secret with a waitress. She smiles and turns and has forgotten him entirely.
Gray pales in the afternoon sun that finds its way into the room. Spots of color show the heat under
A knock meets the door, cordial raps that wait for an answer, not retreating from the peace that follows.
Gray once thought of the thing on the other side of that door as the old man, as time has gone on he’s forgotten why. He once called it the visitor, other names that didn’t fit. Now it is only the stranger.
He opens his mouth to say something, some frail acquiescence, acceptance of entry, but he exhales only barely contained defeat with no words on that breath. He crosses the room with head held low. The knob turns in his hand, door slides open on dry hinges. He doesn’t look the stranger in the face as he retreats to the sanctuary that lies in a musty chair’s embrace.
“Gray,” says the stranger into the drifting detrital air. He says it slow, no rush in the word, he with all the time in the world. “You don’t look well.”
“I look the same as ever.”
The stranger lingers in the door, not moving deeper into the room, content only to hover in silhouette, light of moon or buzzing streetlamp or some phantom radiance at his back and left behind, unable to pass and leaving only this, only him to step forward and into the room. He stands that way, a solemn, silent thing in the dark for minutes as he awaits with stoic patience the reaction he’s come for.
Gray shatters the stillness with his hushed voice. Words crack in living imitation of the broken quiet.
“Ask your question. I won’t do it for you.”
The light touches just enough face to show a grin appear in that silhouette, the shade’s face contorting as lips pull hard at edges.
“Would you like to come along, Gray?”
Gray doesn’t answer right away. When he finds his voice it is smaller still, someone else’s words finding their way from his dry lips.
“How long will this go on?”
“That’s really up to you.”
“What am I being punished for?”
The stranger considers this for only a moment.
“What makes you think you’re being punished at all?”
“I could kill you.”
Gray wants to respond, thinks he will respond, but there is nothing to say and his hands make fists that are useless, wastes, a vain rage so impotent that even the pounding of those fists into padded chair arms seems far beyond the infinite reach of dream. The stranger cuts the moment with mocking words.
“Would you like to come along?”
The light flickers at the stranger’s back, its presence diminished but not gone as Gray stares into the darkness without looking away, not thinking but only wishing for a choice, any choice beyond what there remains for him. When at last he’s done he responds in a whisper.
“I want you to leave now.”
The stranger only nods, receiving what he’s expected and what he always receives. He turns from the room with its haunted silence and the dust of ages. He goes without drama, without word, no waves from cold hand holding hat nor from the one stuffed in the pocket of a coat that only gains substance as the light from rows of lamps lining suburban streets at last reach to stroke its fine fabrics. A nice coat, something made with the attention and care of an artisan, hands skilled in its design. Hand sets hat on head, hiding away the neatly trimmed haircut combed to one side in antiquated severity. Gray looks from the vantage of the doorway to the withdrawing hat and its owner as he’s done so many times before, an ancient hat with brim turned up in elegant pomp. This is the last Gray sees as he turns away, no interest in seeing what happens when the stranger goes, whether he turns to smoke and dissipates or merely walks ever into the distance, a prosaic meandering in and out of existence as shadow envelopes the space between lamps.
Blocks away music caresses the night, a rolling hum that moves the ground so slightly, a thing to be both felt and heard and if someone is angry at this nighttime presence their protests are insignificant, easily shrugged off. Dots of humanity appear a street over, two streets over, young bodies moving from a bar to a party or from a party to a bar, soft skin and laughing voices appearing in transitory bliss in the scant space between trees and homes, obstacles that separate these ephemeral apparitions from the place where Gray sees and hears and finally, as the bodies vanish and the music dies and the world goes away, stepping inside, he closes the door.
Craig Rodgers is the author of stories that have appeared in Juked, Heart of