Boy and Man

The brown of the wrinkled earth and the brown of the man’s clothes were close but not the same color. The boy saw this as he walked toward the man. The log on which the man sat was closely brown, too, and so was the tree trunk behind him. They were all of such dry and flat colors that the boy couldn’t know how big the man was until he walked under the shade of the tree. The man was of a normal size, it seemed. Here under the dark green leaves the boy stood and looked down at the man and the man looked down too, under the brim of a hat. The world felt empty without the crunch of the boy’s boots and the man and the boy kept looking down in some sort of shared witness to the emptiness. A tape played in the boy’s mind of the miles he’d walked across the ground’s small regular cracks and veins, and steps he’d taken while looking at this dark green tree shading its brown tenant, and the tape ended and the boy breathed and was in the moment again and saw the man still looking down.

“Hot today, isn’t it?” said the boy.

The man grunted.

“And bright,” said the boy.

The man grunted again. These were sounds of no ill-will, no agreement or disagreement. The boy thought that perhaps he was doing something wrong by talking to the man.

“That’s a nice hat,” he said, though he could only see the top side of it.

There was another grunt but the hat did not move. The bright emptiness surrounded the three of them – boy, man, and tree – and the boy felt for some sound to remind him that he was alive. There were no sounds. The sun in all its steady downward screaming made no noise; the distant hills were silhouettes without animation; the man didn’t move. The boy didn’t move either. Inhalation heated his nostrils and he held to that.

“Where did you get that hat?” the boy asked.

The man was silent.

He knows that’s not what I’m here for, the boy thought. He felt sorry for bothering the man. The man looked up. The man had a normal face under the hat, though it was dirty and unshaven. The bones cut out against his face to make sharp ridges and taut valleys. Blue eyes in their caves looked at the boy as an answer.

“I was just in that town yonder,” the boy’s arm swung back to point over the thin straight track of dusty bootprints cutting the desert, “and didn’t see no hattery. Did you get that hat from the town? I need a new hat. Where’d you get that hat?”

“I haven’t been in town in three years,” said the man in a rusted voice.

“You got that hat three years ago?”

The man didn’t answer but didn’t look down.

“It’s a nice hat.” The silence was all around them. The boy looked into the man’s eyes and saw a depth. The ground was level and unyielding but something in the world seemed to sink as the boy looked into that depth. And then he blinked and came to himself and tried again.

“I need new boots,” said the boy, “I like your boots. Where did you get them boots?”

The man stood up from the log and his boots’ soles separated from their leather tops along the seam where they’d been sewed, tiny mouths opening in dark greeting.

“What are you talking about?” asked the man.

Their eyes were now very close together. The man was shorter than he’d looked, shorter than the boy. The man’s face was very dark under the shade of the tree and the shade of his hat. It was a nice hat, the boy thought.

The man stepped forward. “What is this about?”

The boy stepped back and the man stepped forward again. They kept stepping until the boy’s boots crunched out of the shade and the sun heated his back. The man stood behind the line of dark and with his dark face looked at the boy. The boy looked at the ground to his left and found no answers; he looked to the right and found no answers. He considered several ways they could arrive, in this conversation, on the substance he wished to discuss. He saw only one way forward and looked up, turning his head away from the strange power of the man’s eyes to instead view the small silhouettes of the distant hills. It didn’t look directly walkable, not from here. No water.

“I’m looking for the man who killed my brother,” said the boy.

“You want to take my boots?” asked the man. He had not looked away. His face had not changed at all and now the boy was looking at his eyes again and could not stop looking at his eyes. “You think these boots will fit you?”

The boy looked down and saw that the boots were enormous.

“No,” said the boy.

“Are you going to kill me?” asked the man.

“No,” said the boy, “It’s not-“

“Why are you really here?” asked the man, and stepped forward. The boy stepped back. The man stepped forward again and, impossibly, remained in the shade. The boy stepped back again to not feel surrounded by the width of the man, who seemed too broad at the shoulders to fit through a door.

“I’m looking for a man,” said the boy. He swallowed and lifted his hands palm up as if to give the phrase as a peace offering. “I’m looking a man.”

“What?” asked the man, and the boy had no answer. The question rang inside his head and he didn’t have an answer for what he wanted or why he was there or what the man’s boots or hat might have meant or if he did want to take them and perhaps was willing to commit murder to do so. The boy looked at everywhere but the man’s deep eyes. He had no answer for what it was – the thing that brought him here – or why he was an inhabitant of this desert or the larger place this desert was set in or even why there was any inhabiting to do at all.

As the man stood and looked up at the boy there was the slightest stirring of the hot air. It crossed his ear in a small breeze. He looked up at the man and into those eyes and did not fear them. He knew –

“You’re the man who killed my brother,” the boy said.

The man didn’t move from the shade in which he was wrapped and the two looked at each other.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, and in the aftersilence he did not flinch. “I’ve been looking for you for three years. Why did you kill him?”

“I’ve killed a lot of people,” smiled the man. “Always nice to meet one of my children.”

The boy did not look away. “Why did you kill him? What did he do?”

The man laughed. “What are you talking about?” He held out his left hand and tapped the sausage-thick fingers with a wooden thumb, counting points on the scraping-together of worn and beat nails, letting ring a voice that died in the dry air. “I’ve killed plenty. Who was your brother? And why would you think I would remember his special face, unique hair, particular scream among the thousands I’ve known? Have you ever asked yourself, boy, if he was exception or just exceptional to you? How would you even know? I took these boots and hat from men I killed and I wear them to guarantee the nightly visitations of their former owners’ faces. I have fatherly taken them out of the world just as their mothers brought them into it. The empty vessels of their bodies are in the desert beyond, collapsing into the dust onto which you and I stand, but their souls are wrapped in my personhood and thus bound to each other in a numerical and narrative greatness they could not have imagined in life. I have taken them as sustenance and inheritors.

“So you will kill me? Do you think you can wear these boots, boy?”

At this last word he leaned forward and the boots gaped open to give a peek of their dark warm interior and the enormous blood-flushed toes within.

The boy saw in the man’s eyes that his brother had been known. The man and his brother had been close.

“Why did you kill him?”

“My child,” the man said, “what is it to kill? What is it to maim?” With ring finger and wooden thumb he encircled his hat and dipped it off. He turned his head to show a pink soft wrinkled gash at the side of his head. “He took my ear,” said the man, “and ate it. And my skin-“ pointing at a square bald patch amidst the hair around his widow’s peak – “and other things.” The man smiled wetly. His face opened like a door, all its lines turning upward. Cooing: “what did he mean to you?”

“He raised me,” murmured the boy. “You’re lying. He didn’t do those things.”

The man smiled again. This time sadly.

While the boy stared at his mouth, he said, “Long ago they had something called a chimera. You ever heard of that?” The boy shook his head. “Well, for your brother it was that pink lump behind his ear. That was the part you could see. But you know there were parts you couldn’t see.”

The boy was silent.

“The lump was there upon his birth. It wasn’t him. He had encased it there. It grew roots into his head with time. I can see that he took things from you, though you’d have trouble pointing to them, and I must tell you that while I destroyed the body of your brother, I did not destroy who he was. I only consumed him in the same manner as he was consumed, controlled, and created by that lump.”

The boy’s lips were dry. He didn’t know whether to be angry or not. He did know, somehow, that the man had no gun. The boy shifted from foot to foot.

The man continued, “The truth is your brother took the lump and his taking constituted a preemption of the laws of primogeniture. Do you know how many slices of it he gave away? Do you understand what we have all suffered?”

The boy shook his head and snorted like a bull. “He raised me. He fed me. His work helped people and he kept me from dying. I had typhoid when I was seven and he was off on some doctoring and I had no other doctor for two weeks. He came and fixed me and they say I woulda died the next day if he didn’t. I saw him put mothers to sleep while birthing and they woke up to the happiest babies in the world. I saw him take off three arms at the elbow from three different carpenters in three minutes flat so clean that not one of them got gangrene. They tell stories about him and end ‘em by saying ‘that’s a man worth remembering.’ If he took your ear in a scuffle, I believe it.”

But the boy licked his lips and the man laughed coolly.

“Oh, my child,” he said, “when was the last time you saw him?”

“Three years ago December 28. He went out to pull a tooth and didn’t come back.”

“You can shoot me anytime you like.”

The boy started. The man laughed again. “Your brother needed you. He put a piece of that lump in you and I know you can feel that you’re more than one person now. Going on three years, that piece must be big. He didn’t care that it would grow, he just needed to give it out. It made him need that. He needed you and all the others for that. He needed me to kill him. Nobody needed him as he was, not except the lump. And so we’ve all played our parts up to today. The question is, do you need me or do I need you?’

The boy brushed his forearm across stinging eyes. His back felt afire under the sun. From the man’s gashed boot came a trickle and then a stream of water. The boy blinked against the pain of vision while the dirt around the boot darkened and sank softly into itself.

The boy didn’t know what to say. The man’s shoulders were so wide they seemed to wrap around and grasp the boy’s back. The boy put his hand on his gun, half just to have something to hold onto. His head lurched forward and then jerked up in unsteadiness to settle his gaze just above the man’s head. The man stood in the sun. His mouth and ear glistened and he put a hand on the boy’s, pressing it into the butt of the gun.

“You can shoot me if you want,” whispered the man, “I won’t hold it against you.”

The man’s other hand rested thumb-on-larynx and fingers-on-pulse. “Go ahead. It’s okay.”



Sun fell onto a small corner of the futon and he looked at this light and then with a push of the curtain cut it back.

The futon had blue and white and yellow stripes down its length. It was covered with bits of sand and dirt carried in from the porch outside by his feet. It was covered in little pieces of itself which had eroded in the turnings of his sleep and coagulated into sand-grain-sized balls that itched a little as his legs moved over it. It was covered in more intimate things – a book which he was planning to reread, a pillow which he’d brought before on a picnic, a thin blanket that he’d brought out for the warm weather, flecks of his fingernails too small to be seen and gathered and thrown away, bits of his skin and hair, stains of his sweat and semen. The futon had been left to him by someone else.

He didn’t look around the room, not at the bookshelves or the drawers of teaching supplies or the sink filled with dirty dishes or the table covered with the remnants of an almost-finished meal from several hours ago. The meal was now growing hard and stale as it sat in on the low table in front of him, under which his two legs were splayed. All of those things, and behind him the wall and its pictures of classes he had taught, students he had known, degrees and awards he’d received, and pieces of art he’d enjoyed and felt connected to in some way, were not looked at. He looked at his computer sitting on his plump, pale thighs.

Bitch, he thought. Bitch, I was there for three hours longer than I had to be, he thought. For you, he thought, because you wanted me to, he thought. And this is what I get?

He stared at the computer screen, at the inviting blankness of his browser. He scratched the rubber band on his wrist, toyed with it a little, looked at the address bar. The band was tight. In America they’d been looser.

The wall tapped him gently on the back as if to remind him that it could move much more vigorously when it wanted to. He ignored it. He stared at the address bar. Possibilities. He didn’t make a move towards the bar, towards any of the websites he knew well. He just stared. No thoughts entered his head, none that he could point to. No thoughts of thick thighs or semen or round asses, no thoughts of red hair and morning light and calm touching. The wall tapped him again and then set up a rhythm, accompanied by the light bouncing of the floor and the heels of his feet, which rolled upward and downward in intensity and stopped.


I don’t know what to do, he thought. This is what I do for you and this is what I get. What should I do? You tax me, he thought. You tax me for the choices I’ve made but have never said you’d’ve made them any different.

The computer beeped at him that it was low on battery and he leaned over for the end of the black cord and grabbed with two fingers from where it sat on the futon, plugged it in in a movement that brushed the head of his penis against the underside of the computer. “Jee-sheen dess. Jee-sheen dess,” his phone beeped and scolded him, and he took it from the table and put it beside him on the futon, then brushed off some dark brown crumbs. The tapping grew a little and then quite a bit, now in his buttocks and pubic floor more than anywhere else, reached a peak, quieted. Maybe a five. She was probably scared, he thought. She doesn’t like this, doesn’t know what to do about them. I should go over there. No, damn it, I was other there three hours longer than I had to be, and what did I get?

It had been worse in Nepal, he thought. It had lasted seventy-five seconds. Damn. He’d thought at the time maybe sixty, but seventy-five. You lose track after a while, you know, can’t think of anything. The first one here was maybe thirty? The second one more? He shook his head. He didn’t know. You lose track after a while, can’t think of anything. He reached down and pulled his testicles unstuck from his thigh, looked at the address bar, the clean white browser page behind the screen with little flecks of lint on it.

But in Nepal there hadn’t been any rubber bands, he thought. No need. But there weren’t any if he had needed them. The ones he’d had in college, he wanted those now. Blue ones so big you had to double them around your wrist, but they looked official or something so no one asked about them. And they snapped nice. He thought about making a move, going for thighs. But he didn’t. He wondered if that was worth a snap or not. He hadn’t thought about thighs, he had thought about going for thighs.

It had been different, anyway, when he’d had the blue ones. He’d been writing papers, not doing this stupid work shit. The shelf in the left corner of the room squeaked a little as it rocked for a moment. He’d had friends. That’s what this was about, it wasn’t even about her, he thought. If it was about her it’d be simple. It’s about me. I don’t have friends. I have two friends and they don’t talk to each other, and she taxes me for having more than just one, more than just her.

He folded his legs into half lotus, testicles now resting on the heel of his left foot. It felt good. Was that worth a snap? Careful, he thought. But the rubber band was too tight, it hurt. Could he get new ones? He thought about when it started. Was it really with the first girlfriend? It started before her, he thought, but when did it get real? When did the pace pick up? Not when they had problems, not like now. Maybe when they went away, maybe when they went away to different colleges and didn’t have anything, didn’t have each other, and he didn’t have friends. Maybe he just needed friends.

But it wasn’t like he had no friends – he thought as a slow savory tapping picked up (the fracturing had been growing more frequent since the night before) – he had them and they didn’t get along. And she’d promised, she’d said she understood, she said she wouldn’t obstruct.

The sun had retreated now six inches from the futon. He looked at the line it made over floor’s scratches and crumbs and pieces of dirt. He saw the shape of a woman on her side, black thong on tanned skin, fullness of thigh-on-thigh next to ass’s cheek-on-cheek, the cross of lines between the four shapes. He blinked. He saw the line of the sun crossing the grain of the floor’s wood. He saw no meaning to it. He looked back at the screen, the ordered and open elements of the page, able to go anywhere.

She said she’d understood. He thought of a snap for the woman, but it seemed too late now to matter. Something in him felt like a paper cup with the bottom cut out of it. And it was afternoon. It was Saturday already and Saturday was soon over, and soon Sunday would be over too, and work would begin again, and the whole wheel would turn around with only lines in his face to show for it like some great Ouroboros contracting itself around the horizon. The weekend would be over. Anger. And time was rushing by. Terror. He licked his lips, rocked back and forth a little, was patient and let his palate clear before again: The weekend would be over. Anger. And time was rushing by. Terror.

He rolled the rubber band up from its sore resting-place.

Okay, so talk to her. Get out of this. But why should I reach out when it was her? She started the whole thing, anyway, her damn pride couldn’t sustain that friendship. So now she was taxing him. He thought about the barrel of a gun in his mouth, lips puckered. How would he angle it so no one else was hit? Or maybe sitting in the bathtub, water all red. When would they find him? Probably on Monday if he didn’t go in or call. There seemed to be a lot of ritual to the bathtub, and something about using his car seemed easier. But he didn’t know any high places, any cliffs from which to do it. He thought of her sadness, the patient understanding as he faded from a shock into a distant episode in her personal history, something to recall. The rattling picked up again. He’d like to be something to recall. He thought of the people he knew in this country all thinking that they had known someone who had done it, who had really done something like that, and all talking together quietly and slowly in words unimportant but gestures intimate and caring, united by the witnessing of something truly significant in the life of another person. Talking together and being at peace and perhaps understanding their own lives or this great system of life a little better.

He bounced on the futon and he could swear that they were getting more frequent and stronger as if they were approaching something ultimate. Stop kidding yourself, though, come now. She’d cry, and you can see what her face would look like. Maybe you should go over there, he thought, she doesn’t like this. She doesn’t know what to do about earthquakes.

He exhaled and deflated like a sat-upon balloon. He had already done it. Did it yesterday and today was the first day without it, again, the millionth first day, he thought, looking at that white page. It wouldn’t matter. He looked over at the shelf beside him, containing his favorite books stacked on top of cherry blossoms pressing and drying for an ex-girlfriend back home. They were the last ones he could find – outside on the trees there was nothing but the new growth of spring losing its green as the last rays of sun were sucked down into themselves and away.

When he talked with friends from college they congratulated him on living in another country, going on such an adventure.

Spring, he thought. Its own kind of death. He turned back to the computer screen. The rumbling picked up again, slowly at first but steadily accelerating, and his phone warned him: “Jee-sheen dess. Jee-sheen dess.”