Sketch of a Hanging Man

In the stiff brown pages of an old textbook I found an illustration of a man hanging from a gibbet.  A pair of small creatures were drawn clinging to the man’s body.  They were dressed in the rough robes of monks, but they had insect heads and long claw-like fingers protruding from their sleeves.  One of the creatures clung to the man’s back, and it seemed to be whispering in the man’s ear, but looking closer, I could see that it was actually gnawing at the rope around the man’s neck.  The other creature clung to the man’s legs, and it rested its head against the man’s knees and grinned lasciviously.  There were more hands and claws breaking through the ground beneath the man, grasping for his swinging feet.  A few inches away a single antenna with sharp spikes was drawn breaking through the soil like an infernal weed.

The caption below the picture explained that back before people knew anything about gravity, it was believed that it was a hanging man’s sins that weighed his body down, that it was the demons trying to pull his soul down into the earth that put the fatal strain on his neck.  The counter force of the gibbet and the rope, being applied from above, pulled back and cinched the noose with the authority of divine justice.  The condemned man was caught between them, literally made to choke on his own guilt.

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Walking Home

There was a terrible accident, and I was rushed to the hospital.  Just as the doctor glanced up at the clock on the wall to call the time of death, I began to see things from his perspective.  Just a quick drop of the eyelids and a sudden snap of the second hand, and then I was seeing things through his eyes.  I had no memory of my own life and I had no tangible connection to the body lying on the bed, but yet somehow I knew that this migration had taken place.  I was the doctor now.  I went on about the doctor’s afternoon rounds, moving from room to room to see the patients as though nothing at all had happened.  Faces smiled up at me from their beds.  People sat up and propped their pillows against the headboards.  The white curtains rippled softly in the cross breeze.  It was turning out to be a pleasant afternoon.  I listened to all of the usual questions.  I nodded to all of the usual answers.

When the doctor’s shift was done for the day, I walked home.  It was a quiet, small town road with no sidewalk, just a soft dirt shoulder.  I knew every step of the way.  I knew the mulberry tree where the doctor would sometimes stop and rest in the shade and finish whatever food that he had brought for his lunch in his black tin lunchbox.  I knew the names on all the mailboxes that were posted along the side of the road, all the names that the doctor read every day without thinking as he passed them by.  This was feeling more and more like my life now.  I was settling into the old habits, the comfortable routines.  I turned down a couple of side streets and I arrived in front of the doctor’s house.  It was a modest bungalow with a short white fence around the front yard.  The doctor lived there with his mother and his grandmother, and I could hear them in the kitchen fixing dinner as I came in.  

That night, I read a few passages from the book that the doctor kept on the table beside the bed, and as I was setting aside the book and the doctor’s reading glasses, I had a moment to reflect.  It was a nice quiet life, but it was a lonely life, too.  Still I knew that I had chosen this somehow.  I had passed on to this after the turbulent storm of my own life had subsided like a whisper.  This was the calm place that I had reached out for in that last moment.  And as I rolled over and settled in bed and listened to the late summer sounds of the bugs outside in the yard, I wondered where the doctor would go when the time came, where I would choose to move on to when this life was over, what other place would look brighter through the looking glass of mortality.  There would always be a little something missing from every life.  I drifted off, dreaming of it.

The Monster

I went over to my mother’s house, and my father was there, staying in the back bedroom.  He had come to town for a brief visit.  I heard his voice coming from the back as I came down the hall.  There was a home hospital bed set up in the middle of the bedroom with an IV and a heart monitor beside it, and my father was laying there talking to my brother on the phone.  He kept telling my brother how stupid and worthless he was.  He spoke so calmly.  He said every horrible, hurtful thing he could think of and he held nothing back.  I took a seat in a chair at the foot of the bed and listened to every awful word.

From bits and pieces of my father’s tirade, I gathered the fact that my brother had stolen some money out of my mother’s purse.  I waited a while for my father to get off the phone.  I wanted to ask him about all of this.  It began to get dark out, and my mother came in to turn on a lamp in the corner of the room.  I wanted to ask her what was going on, but she just held a finger to her lips and hurried out the door.  We had to be quiet while my father was on the phone.  I sat back and waited, and when he finally let the phone fall weakly from his hand, I tried to talk to him, but my mother came in and ushered me out of the room.  She said that he needed to rest and that I couldn’t get him too worked up before he went to sleep.

This incident ruined my father’s entire visit.  As a conciliatory gesture, my brother offered to let my father use his car while he was in town.  He said that he would leave the keys at my mother’s house and he told my father that he understood if he didn’t want to see him otherwise.  But even this sad gesture didn’t quite come off somehow, and my father left town still upset, and everyone felt horrible about the whole thing.  Worst of all, I knew that this would probably be my father’s last visit.  I knew that he didn’t have the strength to make the trip again.  And this was how we had left everything.

After he had gone, I dropped by my mother’s house again.  I still didn’t completely understand what had happened and I wanted to ask her about it.  Summer had passed as the weeks had gone by and there were fallen leaves in the front yard.  I found my mother alone in her living room, sittting in a chair over by the window.  The curtains were drawn, and I could hardly see her across the dim room.  I talked for a long time and I asked her all sorts of question and all the while she just sat there.  Finally, she spoke up in a low voice, almost under her breath, and she said, “You know that I never should have gotten involved with that monster.”

I knew that she was talking about my father and I resented her saying that.  I looked at her and said, “A monster!?  A monster could just as easily be someone that does something petty like stealing money from their mother’s purse when they have a perfectly good job and they make a decent living and they have absolutely no reason to be doing things like that.” But then it occurred to me that I still didn’t know the whole story.  So I asked, “Did he even tell you why he did it?  Did he give you any kind of explanation?”

She hesitated, like she wasn’t sure how much she should say.  Finally, she told me that my brother had taken the money because someone was threatening to kill him.  I didn’t understand.  “Why would someone want to kill him?  What does that have to do with taking money from your purse?” She sighed, and then she muttered something about some football team losing a game.  I started to put it all together, and I began to realize just how big of a problem my brother really had.  I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I said, “He didn’t just take a little bit of money from your purse, did he?”

She began to throw her hands about erratically.  She tried to explain that my brother had taken some credit cards that she had had, and he had maxxed them out.  But then, overwhelmed by her efforts to explain, she just burst into tears and buried her head in her hands.  The whole ordeal had left her financially devastated, ruined.  I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  My hands were shaking.  I didn’t know what to do.  I just sank down into a chair, and I sat staring with my eyes wide.

Mountain View

I was part of an expedition that was heading up to an abandoned hotel in the mountains.  I was taken along because I had been to the hotel on vacation years ago when it was still open and I knew the layout of the hotel and I had important information crucial for the expedition.  There were switchback stairs carved into the grey, frozen face of the mountain and we used them to climb up to the hotel high above.  A few of the steps were cracked or broken or missing entirely, and we had to step carefully around the cracks or jump to clear the gaps in some places.  We inched our way up with our backs to the rock face and our breath steaming with each deep exhalation.

The hotel was literally built into the side of the mountain.  The front facade protruded directly from the rock, and there was a long porch that ran the length of the front of the hotel and hung out over the edge of the mountain side.  We all gathered on this porch, a few members of the expedition bracing themselves against the wooden railing and peering down at the grey swirl of mist and snow through which we had just ascended.  It was evening and the light was beginning to fade.  The leader of the expedition consulted with me about where to go next.  I pointed down towards the end of the porch to a set of double doors that led to the old front lobby of the hotel.

It was dark inside the lobby, and although the cold, dry air had preserved everything, there was still a sour, stale smell of abandonment and neglect that hit me as soon as I came though the door.  I remembered the woman that had been there behind the front desk.  I remembered her crooked blonde wig and her sloppy makeup and that awful way that she laughed, and I remembered how strangely uncomfortable I had felt being here then.  I crept along into the dark, wondering if this woman’s ghost was still there or if I might encounter some remnant of her shadow on the wall.  I almost turned to go right then, but the leader of the expedition grabbed me by the arm.  He waved his flashlight down a hallway, wanting me to lead them all deeper into this ruin.  He communicated with pantomimes and gestures, somehow reluctant to speak or disturb the vacant silence.  I took a deep breath and nodded and we moved on.

We came to a large dining hall where all the round tables were still covered in white table cloths and the places were all still set with dishes and silverware.  Moonlight streamed down through the skylight, illuminating the long threads of cobwebs strung from the light fixtures.  I remembered having a late dinner here, and I remembered how I had still felt uneasy and how the waiter’s strange, sly demeanor had put me on edge.  I remembered lifting the silver lid on my meal and expecting to find something alive and squirming underneath.  I snapped out of this memory and found myself in the dark dining hall holding a silver lid that I had pulled back from one of the trays on the table.  There was nothing but discarded bones left on the tray.  I studied the bones closely, looking to see what sort of animal they had once belonged to, but I couldn’t tell anything from the bones.

In the back of the dining hall there was a short flight of stairs that led to a narrow hallway.  The guest rooms were all along this hallway.  I led the expedition down the hall and I showed them the room that was just across from the room that I had stayed in.  This was what they were looking for.  This was why they had brought me.  When I had stayed here, I had been kept awake all night by the screams of a woman giving birth in the room across the hall.  I remembered tossing and turning in my bed.  I remembered clutching my pillow around my ears.  I remembered that nothing, absolutely nothing, had helped at all.

The door was unlocked and it swung inward into the dark room.  I had never actually been in the room.  I had just pictured it in my mind as I had laid there all night listening to the woman scream, and I had just assumed that it was a basic room like the one that I was staying in.  Instead, I saw now that it was a large, open shower room with white tiles.  There was a bare twin matress laid down in the middle of the floor.  There was a large, deep spot of blood down at the foot of it, and there was some blood spattered on the white tiles around the room.  There was a metal pail in the corner filled with blood that had slopped over the sides.  The leader of the expedition made his way over to this pail with his flashlight, and he was just about to start picking through it, when another member of the team called out that she had found what they were looking for.  She held up a signet ring that she had found on the edge of the drain in the middle of the room.  The flashlights all converged on this ring.  It was gold and it had an “X” carved onto the flat surface of it.

As the expedition was packing up their gear to leave the hotel, I decided to have one last look at the room that I had stayed in on that night long ago.  The room faced towards the east, as I had requested, towards the view from the front of the hotel and the face of the mountain.  The clouds had broken and the sun was just beginning to rise, casting the surrounding peaks in cool blues and breaking in hues of red and gold through the pass.  The light shone through the windows and fell on a bookshelf that was built into the wall across from the window.  I reached out to grab one of the books, but then I realized that the bookshelf wasn’t real.  It was just a design in the wallpaper.  I shook my head.  I had been fooled by that same illusion when I had been here before.

A Brief Survey

It was late at night, and I decided to go out and do some shopping while the stores were all quiet.  I pulled into the empty parking lot of a department store.  Just inside the entrance there was a display of white, faceless mannequins surrounded by Greek columns and pediments.  A spotlight shone down on this display, and the walls around it were painted black, giving the impression that the display was suspended in empty space.  One of the mannequins had laurel leaves around her head, and she wore a long Grecian gown.  She indicated the way to the sales floor with the languishing pose of her arm, her palm upturned as though she were gathering cool running water.

The way that she indicated lead down a wide, dark corridor, mostly bare except for a few other faux Greek artifacts scattered here and there along the way.  In the dark I stumbled against one of these artifacts, a large free-standing vase carved with glyphs and symbols.  I knocked the thing over and I saw that I had chipped a piece off of the edge of it.  I was standing there holding the broken piece and looking for where it had broken from the vase when I heard a woman’s voice further down the corridor call out to me, “Oh, it’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.”

I looked up and saw three women standing around a little area that had been set up in the middle of the corridor.  There was a small rug laid down and on the rug there was an a leather armchair, an old grey TV with silver dials, and a camera set up on a tripod facing the armchair.  One of the women beckoned me with a wave of her hand, and when I came over, all three of them eased me into the chair, gently pushing down on my shoulders and holding me there.  The woman who had beckoned me over went and turned on the camera, and she spoke with her eye to the eyepiece of the camera, communicating with the image in the camera instead of talking directly to me.

The women told me thay they were taking a survey of some sort, and they said that I would get some coupons for the store if I gave them a few minutes of my time.  It sounded like a fine deal to me.  The woman behind the camera asked me a series of random questions as she continued to peer into the eyepiece.  The other two women continued to hold me in place with a hand on each shoulder.  They applied only the slightest hint of pressure, but I knew that they would hold me firm if I tried to resist or get up and get away.  I looked up at one and then the other from time to time.  They both stood with fixed smiles, stairing straight ahead.

When she was done, the woman behind the camera looked up from the eyepiece and thanked me warmly.  Then she went over and turned the dial on the TV with a sharp click.  I noted the deep red nail polish on her fingers and the brisk but precise clarity of her movements.  The glow of the TV slowly brightened.  The picture rolled a few times before settling into place.  And then I saw my own face staring back at me, wearing the same wool winter cap.  I noticed on the screen that my eyes were squinting strangely, and as the footage of the survey was played back to me, I watched as my eyes went in all sorts of different, random directions from one another, like two eyes that hadn’t been properly paired to work together.

Having never seen footage of myself talking, I had no idea that my eyes had developed this strange wandering habit.  I was alarmed and upset that this had been recorded.  I started to stir from the chair, but just as I had thought, the two hands on my shoulders held me firm.  The footage had already been recorded.  It was too late to take it back.  The woman who had asked the questions picked up the TV from its stand and she carried it over to a wall across the way where there was a bank of dozens of these TVs mounted in a grid.  She slid the TV with my face on it into the last remaining empty space in the grid.  Together these TVs formed a mosaic of faces with a variety of grotesque tics and unconscious idiosyncrasies.  I looked from face to face and took in the whole effect of them until I was lost in this sea of gesticulating heads, gone from the chair completely, just another face on the wall.

Paying My Respects

My mother called me and asked me to come to a funeral.  This man that she knew had died, some friend of hers from church.  I remembered seeing him there when I was young, and I remembered noticing how much older he had gotten every time that I had seen him again and how he had served as a benchmark of the years, and that was all.  I reluctantly agreed to go.  I stood in my upstairs hallway and hands appeared to tie the black tie around my neck and to slip the black suit jacket over my shoulders, and finally someone led me down to the car waiting out in the driveway.  The streets were empty and the raindrops tapped against the wet pavement.

I slipped in through some back door of the funeral home, and I walked down a long dim corridor where someone was lighting tapers along the wall every few feet.  I heard organ music.  I found the room with the flowers around the casket and the mourners standing around in small groups, talking.  My mother was there with a few of my aunts.  I passed them with a nod and I went to look down at the man in the casket.  We both had on the same black suit and tie.  I looked at the man’s bald head and his little white scruff of a beard, and I recognized him once again.  I wanted to tell my mother and my aunts that I had seen the man just the day before.  We had passed in the woods at a spot where the path turned.  He had waved a hand at me and I had waved a hand at him, and that was it.  We had both went on without a word.  But now it turned out that he had died three days ago, and there had been two days preparing the service.  All the things that I could have asked him, if only I’d known him.    

Last Words

My wife and I were browsing around an abandoned warehouse filled with old typewriters.  There were windows high on the walls with grimy, yellowed panes of glass that softened the light that shone through.  There was a strong smell of stale oil in the air.  The typewriters were piled up everywhere, old manual typewriters, electric typewriters, big office typewriters, all sorts of types and brands.  Some were piled in heaps of gears and hammers.  Over on a shelf by the wall there was a bin filled with loose keys that had fallen off the different machines.  I slid the bin out a little ways with my finger and I gave the box a good shake.  There was every letter of the alphabet in there, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Any of the typewriters were free to take, if I could find one that worked and was worth taking.  I came across a few typewriters that were sitting by themselves on tables and desktops scattered around the shop, as though someone had set them up there ready to be used.  Seeing if these typewriters still worked seemed more promising than trying to extract any of the broken machines from one of the piles.  They were at least still left at their posts, still maintaining the semblance of service. A few even had working desk lamps shining down on their carriages and chairs placed before them, ready to be occupied.

My wife started to get impatient as she followed me through the warehouse.  She saw nothing but heaps of old junk.  She said that I’d never find a typewriter that worked, and she couldn’t see the point in trying to find one, anyway.  They were all old and outdated and obsolete.  I came across one that had a stack of blank paper laid out beside it.  It was a little blue typewriter, and it looked just like the one I used to own, except that it had an actual return key, rather than that long metal lever on the carriage.  I told my wife to just give me a second, and I fed the paper in with that soft satisfying click of the wheel.  It jumped to life with a hiccup when I flipped the power switch.  The loose desktop rattled slightly from the warm hum of the machine as it waited for me to tap the first key.

I slid into the chair.  I sat for a moment, looking at the broken parts that had been crammed onto a shelf behind the desk beyond the glow of the desk lamp.  I looked at the ashtray beside the typewriter and the burned out stub of a cigarette left still poised and forgotten on its edge.  I felt like I had to choose the first words I typed carefully.  I felt like the health and fate of this machine depended on what I typed.  It would be a summons from the outside world, a message recalling it to life.  This was a negotiation.  I had to convince the typewriter that it still had work to do, that there were still words out there worth shedding ink for.

I don’t remember exactly what I typed.  I remember the click of the keys and the sharp snap of the hammers against the paper.  But I hadn’t gotten more than five words out before I looked up and noticed that they had all run together on the page, a long smudge of consonants and vowels all hitched to one another in a single incomprehensible word, saying nothing.  I jiggled the space bar.  It felt loose under my fingers, and nothing happened when I pressed it.  I felt the hum of the machine begin to fade away.  The bulb in the desk lamp flickered.  I tapped randomly at the keys, but the typewriter was gone.  My wife just shrugged and shook her head.

An Empty Gallery

I met an old man who could draw.  He was tall and cadaverous, and he always wore the same shabby brown suit and hat.  He looked as though he slept in the suit and it had worn to the contours of his frame to the point that it no longer wrinkled.  His hand was long and frail and it would tend to shake until he made a fist to steady it, and his eyes were milky and dim, but he could still weave together a picture in minutes like he was conjuring the image out of the air.  It was amazing to watch him work, and I got the idea for the two of us to open a shop together.  We rented out a space for the store, and I displayed some of his work in the front window on a couple of small easels with spotlights shining down on them.

I tried to find some angle, some specific type of drawing or merchandise that would become our stock and trade.  I wanted to have some part in this.  If the old man’s gift was lightning in a bottle, I wanted to at least be the one that designed the bottle.  I thought, for instance, of having the walls on either side of the store lined with racks of hand crafted greeting cards.  I would concoct the sentiments and the old man would draw the illustrations, and we would be in the greeting card business.  But it never worked out that way.  We never settled on anything definite.  I never knew what kind of store we had.  The two of us would just stand there in the middle of the empty shop, the stone walls and the floor all completely bare, and we would wait for people to come in out of the rain.

And people would come.  The pictures out front would catch their eye and they would wander in, looking all around.  They all wanted something different.  They put forward their requests uncertainly, not sure if such a thing could be done, or if it could be done right, or if it could be done by us.  One woman wanted a simple family portrait of herself and her children, her hands resting on their shoulders.  Another man wanted the face of his late wife drawn from memory.  That is, he wanted his memory somehow conveyed to the old man’s hand.  People wanted landscapes that they had seen in their mind, or moments they had long since lost.  The old man’s supplies would materialize upon request, his pens and his pencils, and with broad curving strokes he would indelibly etch their vision onto the paper.  I stood by with the customers and watched him work, and I never got tired of it.  Afterwards, when the old man was packing his tools away in a small wooden case, the customers would always dab their eyes with a tissue and they would press the tissue into my hands as a token of gratitude and as payment for our services.  I took the tissues and locked them away in the cash box in the back room of the shop, but I knew they weren’t for me or for anything I’d done.