A hum begins, white noise smoothing away the vestiges of an already waning dream. The hum becomes a grating vibration as somewhere nearby machinery shifts into active gear. Mower. Gray breathes in and rises from sleep. Noise swells and recedes but never ceases. Arms stretch and legs touch floor as he sits up amid the pulsating din. He dresses in no rush as destruction swirls ever inward in the rise and fall of sound. His tie is straight as he sits once more on the bed’s unmade edge and waits for the sound to die away. Sometime later, it does.
He opens the door at the second knock. A child stands on the porch looking up.
“I cut your grass.”
The boy waits for payment or acknowledgement of the deed and the words. Gray stares back, no imbursement save an unchanged offering of the passage of time.
“I’ve seen you,” says the child.
“Some nights you talk to that man.”
Gray says nothing.
“How long have you been here.”
“A long time.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a salesman.”
“No you’re not. How do you live?”
The invasive disposition of such a question passes over Gray in waves of revulsion. He waits for the boy to lose interest in his own line of thought, but the boy stands spellbound by the shameless curiosity of innocence.
“Some friends died,” says Gray. “They left me some money.”
Gray hands the boy a folded ten dollar bill and closes the door. The creak of boards mark the boy’s exit from the porch. The sound of the mower being dragged across the lawn and down the street follows, and soon the world returns with all its delicate rumblings.
The park is mess of hives, each one a pocket universe. Cliques meander past imagined cordons to view but not approach those foreign inhabitants of the section adjacent; the exiled grandfathers with their games at stone tables, pieces moving with patience and method, the nannies observing the children they’re tasked with while each child bounces with delighted ignorance through their own imagined infinity. Couples walk along cracked sidewalk lanes and here and there a straggler from the lunch crowd sits working over the remnants of some deli concoction, but the clusters do not mingle and each is easily defined.
Gray sits on a bench by the old men at their tabletop diversion, but he makes no effort to be among them, and if any among their ranks take notice of him where he sits, none bother to speak up. He used to read in this place, used to sit here for long days with some book or other held open in lap, but now he only sits, the motion of existence telling a story longer and more intricate than any finite narrative. The churning of these fleeting wraiths manifests in patterns felt but impossible to follow, an organized chaos calculable only by an eye existing somewhere on the outside of it all, a being a step back from the unending swirl and flow of life.
Gray takes it in; the face of a woman wrinkling as she chides a child for a playtime transgression, a geriatric man’s hard eyes taking the measure of his chessboard opponent, dogs walked at leash end and treats sold from rolling carts and grinning fools pointing at something unseen, a sight existing outside the mechanical rotations of the park habitation, the suggestion of worlds beyond this. Gray is an unmoving cog amidst this impossible machine, only an audience to the tragic wash of story all around, and when hours have gone by and the sun begins to fall away, face placid as wraiths pass along sidewalk, a hello tossed by a woman jogging in garish spandex suit, he stands and walks to the street.
Streetlights hum as he passes beneath. Unblemished sidewalk leads the way past each home indistinguishable from the last. No one takes notice of this tattered phantom moving among their transitory lives in a faded suit, a dented felt hat planted hard on a downturned head that watches unblinking the passage of block after block underfoot. He doesn’t see them and he doesn’t see the world. Shapes in the fog of his malaise. He doesn’t have to look up to know every detail that he passes. He’s seen them all a thousand times before.
The sights on Gray’s street are the same as those of each that’s come before but for the leaning husk of his home. The steps are silent under a tread barely felt. Opens the front door to a rush of stale air. He pauses in the doorway, looks to the side. A policeman draped in the regalia of authority knocks on a neighbor’s door, asking questions about a child gone missing. Gray shuts his own door, and with it, the world.
The knock comes at night, an expected disturbance. Gray doesn’t get up. He could not keep the thing on the other side shut out if he wanted to. The knock comes again. He waits, staring. Dust drifts on air, slow movement caught in light of streetlamps filtering in through windows, the sprinklings of life’s detritus coasting along to nowhere in particular. The knock does not come a third time.
The knob turns and the door opens and the stranger removes hat, crosses the threshold as if he’s been invited, as if he’s wanted in this place. Fetid air plumes as he falls into a chair. Dust motes swirl. Dead eyes look out from the impossibly ordinary face of the stranger. He lounges, one leg resting across the other, hat in lap, content to play a waiting game he knows he’ll win with ease.
Gray slumps in his seat as he breaks with a single word steeped in futility.
No humor exists in the slow spread of smile upon the stranger’s face.
“Jarring, isn’t it. Remembering what anger feels like.”
“There was no need.”
“He saw me,” says the stranger
“He was no one.”
“He saw me. He remembered me. That’s all it takes.”
Gray falls into a grim silence, any words in him only a vain flailing, not worth the attempt. The stranger sits with him in that quiet, contented in the minute he allows that calm to exist before he speaks in a voice pregnant with mocking sympathy.
“The ugliness of this world is nothing new. You can leave with me if you want. We can go right now.”
No change passes over Gray, only the in and out of breath and then a single terse thought loosed upon the room.
The stranger carries his hat across the doorsill and out into the night, leaving Gray alone in his slumped misery, slatted light illuminating only pieces of this musty cave world and its one unmoving inhabitant. A hand tightens on the arm of a chair. Teeth grind in mute rage. Some time later the swirl of dust in the air has calmed, and nothing moves in this solemn place for long night hours.
He sips from a glass of tepid water without any real need. Gray’s hat sits alongside a hand placed stoic on countertop. Wait staff move about, setting plates before hungry customers, gathering tips, taking orders. Snippets of conversation pass by in the haze. An earnest upset consumes talk. Gray watches foot traffic move by along sidewalk on the street side of long windows lining diner walls, or he watches the room he inhabits, himself apart from the passing swirl of chatter.
She’s there, planted at a corner booth, a pen scribbling its way across a page. Scratch paper, a part of something torn away from a whole. A plate of some unrecognizable mush sits congealing, forgotten. She chews on the pen cap as she works over a thought. Eyes staring at paper, at what they find there, some thought she’s put down and already left behind. Lips curl upward, amused or pleased. He looks at her when he’s not looking at the passing flow outside. She sees him looking, meets his eyes. He looks away but it’s too late.
The slap of her paper, of the notepad she’s pulled it from, these mark her presence without his turning to see. She orders a coffee and takes the stool next to his. A fat server with a sincere look of disinterest sets her coffee down and vanishes. She sips and goes back to writing, waiting for the introduction he isn’t going to offer.
Her coffee goes cold. She orders another.
“You look familiar.”
She doesn’t know she’s going to say it until she already has. He turns at the sound, flinches at the upset to the natural order of things. The flow of traffic along the sidewalk has become interrupted. The world stands still. Her next coffee arrives.
“I look like anybody,” says Gray. He sees the promise of as yet unformed conversation spring forth in the expectant look on her face, a pleasing escape into all the things not yet said that soon will be, and from this he lowers his eyes.
“I can’t speak to you.”
The crisp noise of a newspaper fluttering without reason across the island breaks the moment. Chester returns his eyes to the crossword there, a smirk on his face as he wholly misreads the situation.
“Well,” says the woman, a nameless woman sitting to Gray’s side, already slipping back into the scratch page filled with a letter to some other life.
Gray puts a dollar under his glass and leaves his seat. He murmurs an apology to no one in particular and abandons himself to the flow of life outside, moving among its kinetic advance without ever being a part of it.
Undiscerning shoppers mill around a warehouse of clothing overstock, hands touching items on racks without interest, rubbing fabric and moving on. A woman frowns at a sheer sundress hanging limp from hanger clasps. A man tries on a suit jacket several sizes too large, shoulders slack, arms loose, the man dwarfed inside like a child bedecked in the trappings of an elder. Along the walls door after door leads to inner suites containing boutiques of finer articles and the craftsmen skilled in their design. The hatter fills the doorway of his shop with his gaunt, unmoving form. A gargoyle, passive in place, eyes sunken deep in skull, glints in the dark of their sockets, watching unblinking, cheekbones protruding.
“There was a man here before,” says Gray, only now aware that the instrument intended to explain his story is absent, the dented hat forgotten or lost. Empty hands wave in vain frustration. The hatter’s response renders any explanation unnecessary.
“I know the man. He hasn’t been in.”
Gray looks into the dark pits in that skull, measuring what he finds there. The road to any answers sought is not in this place. He nods once and quits of this unswerving, unpleasant man.
The sun is still up as he finds himself, Gray does, standing before the painting, his interest taken by the suggestion of a man in that waving field. The room is silent, the noise of the world shut out by the door Gray passed through seconds or hours ago, somewhere in time before now. He’s waiting, he suspects, for the arrival of the stranger, and he wonders who it is the man in the painting waits for.
The knock comes too soon. The sun is falling somewhere beyond dusty blinds, but daylight still filters in. He opens the door.
She stands in silence with the hat held out. His shoulders slump. It’s too late.
“You might as well come in.”
She crosses the threshold and glides with a relaxed gait through the swirling gloom within. Gray holds out a hand toward an empty chair. Sit. He slumps into his own seat, slim bars of light crossing his person as the sun dies outside.
“Your hat,” she says. The dented felt passes from her possession to his like a piece falling into place, a bauble from some other era or world slipping back into its own reality. He settles in his seat, resigned to what is coming. She rests, unmoved by the gloom or the person staring unblinking at her presence. She speaks.
“You were rude to me.”
He touches the hat with one hand, letting it sit in his lap but not daring to let the touch end.
“It doesn’t matter now.”
She crosses one leg over the other. Air stirs, dust animated, glitter spinning in swaths of light. She holds out a hand and coughs up a frustrated word.
“Why did you come here?”
“You ran off.”
“I was rude to you because I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to you because I’m cursed.”
“Oh,” she says. “You’re a lunatic.”
“You tell people that a lot?”
“That I’m cursed?”
“I don’t tell anyone that. Ever.”
“Don’t be scared.”
“I’m being punished. I can’t die.”
“You really are a crazy person.”
“I’m being punished with life. People disappear all around me and I am left to suffer forever.”
“That sounds like a bad deal.”
“It’s a curse. It’s not supposed to sound nice.”
“Like in the bible. The end times. The good people get to go to Heaven while everybody else gets left here.”
“Not like that. Not at all like that.”
She sits back.
“Sounds a lot like it to me.”
He only stares back.
“Who disappears?” she asks.
“The rules aren’t written down someplace. I don’t know who they’ll take. I don’t know what will and won’t set it off. I can’t risk it.”
“I don’t know what to call them. There’s the stranger, but he works for someone else.”
“You should be on anti-psychotics.”
“Well,” he says, but there is nothing to follow with and he falls into a sullen silence. She breaks it.
“How do you know?”
“How do I know what?”
“You can’t die. Have you tried stepping in front of a bus?”
“Have I stepped in front of a bus?”
“I haven’t,” he says, his face empty of expression. “I have not stepped in front of a bus.”
“What if you do?”
“What if I do?”
“You’d know. Then you’d know.”
The rough grate of teeth on teeth as his jaw grinds out an implacable rush of emotion is the only noise for a long beat, until at last he speaks up.
“You should leave.”
She looks around as if some answer to this sudden shift can be found in the waning light of the room. Her next thought comes out as a dispassionate stream of words.
“You think I’m going to disappear.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. He holds the door for her as she leaves.
His mouth is parched. He taps his thumb across each finger as he walks. Hands are dry, skin like paper pulled across bone. Each hand flexes with nerves he leaves unacknowledged. He removes his hat and runs a hand through hair, distracting the fidget for seconds. When the hat is back on his head the hands return to their endless, meaningless task. He pauses on the sidewalk before he gets to the door. People ignore his presence as the morning pedestrian flow ambles on in its own serene disinterest.
The door handle is cool in his hand. He pulls and the seal is broken, a blast of coffee and bread and morning world smells wafting through the opening. Chester taps a pen on the counter, stares into a newspaper. A young woman chats with a customer. A geriatric with cold eyes accepts crumpled dollar bills from a man who only bought coffee. Life swirls in the room. Gray moves among that teeming froth.
There is a rush to things, an urgency felt in the moment that has been absent for long years. Twinges of some ugly emotion from a past life. Hands squeeze into fists. He steps deep into the room until the room’s nooks show themselves. She’s there, seated and oblivious at her table. Hands loosen, each palm white, drained of life. He exhales a breath he didn’t know he was holding. She’s smiling, she’s chatting. Gray steps forward and through the shuffling breakfast crowd the stranger’s ordinary face appears, innocuous and nodding, engaged in talk with the woman at the table. He stops, one foot forward, paused in place as all around the world fails to notice the change.
She doesn’t turn. The stranger speaks, his words eaten by the room. She nods, absolute agreement with some unheard lie. Gray watches and waits and it goes on this way, this moment unending. He turns away when he finds he can.
Chester’s pen is dying. He taps it against the countertop, shakes it, prints letters carefully in empty crossword spaces, shakes the pen again. Gray is standing at his side for seconds, for a minute, content to wait to be noticed.
Gray’s face is placid, empty. His voice comes out without feeling.
“I need a gun.”
The questions that come to Chester’s mind circle once, retreat unasked. He looks back at the cold man before him.
“Come back tonight.”
Gray gives only a bare nod. Hands are stuffed into pockets as he walks away. Chester watches the exit of this stranger he’s sat across from on an untold number of mornings. He watches the door and the sidewalk traffic. Hand taps pen on counter to the beat of some unspoken thought. He looks back at his paper, working to remember where he was. He puts pen to paper, but the pen has run dry. He runs the point over the same spot again and again without leaving its mark. Chester folds the page over, the puzzle unfinished.
A stillness creeps among the racks of suits between which Gray moves. The shoppers have gone or not yet arrived. The air is thin, untouched by human lungs. A mechanical sound drones inside a wall, an air conditioner circulating for no one. The hatter’s booth stands open, the door open, unguarded. An elderly man sits, one leg over the other, his form lounging prim and polite in one of the room’s used up, spent chairs. The man smiles a wide smile, his wrinkled face a mask of affable delight. One hand touches a derby resting in his lap while the other hand points to an empty chair in courteous invite. Gray closes the door behind him as he enters.
“Are you waiting for the hatter?”
The elderly looks back at Gray, at this wasted question. His response is delayed.
“The hatter is gone.”
Gray sits, settling into the chair’s worn grooves. The elderly watches him with eternal patience, ancient eyes studying this creature moving before them.
“I came looking for you.”
“No answers to find,” says the elderly. “No wisdom here.”
“You’re like me. You’re trapped.”
The elderly laughs at this, unashamed guffaws in the face of Gray’s sincerity.
“We’re all trapped. We’re stuck. The terms of your agreement don’t matter. What you did, I don’t care. I can’t help you and you can’t help you. I’m like you? Okay. I’m like you. Sure. What does that get you? Nothing. Nothing.”
The elderly stands. He puts the derby on his head, that dark fabric soaking up the light of the room, swallowing it all.
“There,” he says. “Now you’re wise.”
Streetlamps buzz as he passes beneath, in and out of their pooled, pale light. Birds line wires strung from utility poles, oil-black menacing things, wings wet with their own grim color. They sing a manic song that Gray ignores, his attention turned wholly to a futile conviction. Street traffic is limited, cars heard but not seen, foot traffic stifled, disinterested passersby appearing along the way, soon gone again.
The diner is a hot, humid cave. A bulb has burned out in one corner and the room basks in dreamlike illumination, shadows moving through unearthly light. Gray orders a coffee. He drinks it down and orders another. A newspaper sits forgotten on the counter opposite him, its page folded to the crossword. He stares at this paper, at the empty seat at its side.
The booth where the woman sat is empty. The seat from which she laughed at some private joke, where she scribbled letters to a better life, this place is bereft of its former meaning. Now it is only a place, a seat to be taken. He leaves a generous tip on his way out.
The stranger won’t be there yet, at the leaning, warped home Gray inhabits, but he will be waiting for the time to come when he is to make an appearance. The stranger is off wherever he goes, but the time is approaching. Gray stands on an empty sidewalk looking out at a darkened sky. Streetlamps buzz. Signs inviting miscreants in out of the darkness mark shops still open into evening hours or later. They hum, glowing with their own internal life, the places and their signs. A wind moves along the sidewalk, a chill that passes through Gray in his place out here, his face unmarked by all the years as even the sidewalk beneath his feet gives up its scars, cracks of age showing the world inside. A bus comes along on an avenue named after some long dead crofter who inhabited this place before there was a street to name or even a city. The engine growls like some arcane beast. Gray steps off the curb. There is no sound of brakes.
Craig Rodgers is the author of stories that have appeared in Juked, Heart of Farkness, Chicago Literati, Not One of Us, and others. He has an extensive collection of literary rejections folded into the shape of cranes and spends most of his time writing in North Texas.