Fiction: The Man in Red
I can still recall the tune after all these years. Melodically simple, with no harmony as far as I can remember. A simple song performed on a steel guitar under the shadow of the looming bank building downtown. There it vibrated, inviting all of us in for a closer look, and as it brought us all closer we started seeing the mechanisms.
Maybe you have not seen them before. Most people that day hadn’t, and it was a summery, shimmery day, the kind that punctuate unbearable summer workweeks with a cleansing wave of sweat and heat. Those days pull at the stitching of what we see, and the fabric of the visual world around us breaks down. It’s at these times when, harried by heat and burdened by the glare of the sun, people can start to feel the electricity spark on their fingertips and see the mechanics. All the gears and hooks, long rows of supervisors cloaked in iron sheets, their eyes protected by masks lined with scorched glass. Look closer and find them poking and prodding. We even find ourselves bound at the neck, unable to turn this or that way when we hear the call of an old friend, catch glimpses of heaven in our peripheral vision. On summer days, funnily enough, we can feel the pull of these forces most strongly but we have the least strength to fight them.
Where was that tune? Under the bank building. But what does that tell me? Nothing much of use, I’m afraid. I said downtown, but where? Reader, you can do me no good in this case, I’m afraid. You can’t hear the melody, and I know that some people could hear it and think, “writer, why, this sort of song could only have come to you in a place that is thus or this way.” Let me try that. Play the song in my head, and what sort of place does it summon up around the young woman strumming it patiently on the guitar?
The song’s opening notes bring me to another time, a time when you could wander the world without quite knowing what the rows of nursery pines were pointing to on the highway or the names of the junkyard restaurants that dotted the roadsides. Each of the measures pulls me further and further from order. I lose sight of traffic laws, police enforcers, the gavels of judges. Skyscrapers shrink and crumble into the sky, their glass panels returning to sandy pits.
I’ve gone far enough. The woman playing the guitar wears a long blue dress that has been kissing the dust for far too long. Her face is beautiful but obscured by the stark blackness of the bank’s shadow. I’m standing somewhere in the crowd around her, surrounded by people who tower over me. After hearing more of the song, I realize that I can’t see the guitarist at all. The woman in my head…she looks too much like me to be real, and so I listen to the song further and realize that I don’t know whether that woman existed there or not. Someone had to pluck the strings and draw the crowd in. So we’ll let her stay for now. We’ll name her Guitar.
At that moment, a streak of red barges through the crowd, upsetting my balance and sending me to the ground headfirst. I taste powdery dust and what I hope is my own blood. The pain is all localized around my lips, which had already been desiccated by the sun’s rays. Looking around, I see that several other people have hit the ground as well, moaning in confusion.
I spring back up to my feet. The song stops.
I dreaded this. The song drew me here, and now I am enraptured, a body trapped in a place with no soul. Unable to escape back to the present through those notes, I let the memory’s constructed reality draw me further in. A new life didn’t sound too bad, really. Even if it was actually in antiquity.
Meanwhile, this man in red…
ADVENTURES OF THE MAN IN RED!!
Barker: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages! Come one, come all, and meet the legendary MAN IN RED! Yes, for one night, and one night only, this savage vagabond will be signing autographs.
Man in Red: (Narrating) ‘Kay. I remember the days when I wondered, “What’s up with that?” Then I realized that no one ever comes up with a good answer. That was when I was about twelve years old. I was tired of peering through the grime on our windows to watch the neighbors’ children playing with their dogs in the yard or putting together impromptu hockey games in the street. Once I realized that, I asked my mother for a red cape for my birthday.
Mother: Of course, but make it flashy for mummy, OK?
Man in Red: Of course. So I promised her that I would be mummy’s little trophy boy. This was early in life, but I remember furtive phone conversations behind curtains, my mum just standing there framed in silhouette, vulnerable to the weird vertical shadows that shifted with the daylight. She would leave her tears on the ground, not wanting me to see them, I suppose.
THE DAY THE RED CAPE ARRIVED
Man in Red: I turned thirteen on March 10. Whenever that day rolls by again as the year turns lazily onto its side and yawns into spring, the smell of Lent is on my mind. In the circus, we slept close, packed into a tiny bed in the trailer, curled up like grotesque, hairless kittens in a basket.
April tenth. Inhale. Exhale. Breathing in the festival air and exhaling ashes onto the streets. I told myself that, since Easter was late that year, I would try to wear my cape and just a T-shirt to church. I never got the chance.
I ran away to the circus as soon as I touched the red cape. My feet were sunk deep into our shaggy blue carpeting, the radiator hummed contentedly in the far corner, and for some reason none of the faces in my memory stood by for very long. Uncle Asa, the ringleader, the one with the name you could print up on business cards–he was sitting in the chair, alert. I admit he could be a man of violent temper, but at the sight of the red cape his face changed to match it. I remember him halfheartedly coveting all sorts of wondrous things, and the splendid red colour I was now draped in touched a longing nerve.
“That was the colour of the blood we saw in the streets,” he said. I asked him what he meant, and the room fell silent. I returned from the circus. No use in pretending when no one was smiling. Like offering to pay for the awkward silences in a grocery line. It’s all part of the package.
Asa told me that I had to be older to know. I accepted this, knowing that I was far from grown up. Mum held up a mirror and I looked into it, seeing the red cape, being jealous of my reflection. If only I could see him the way he saw me.
Sounds from the circus returned. Aunt Trudy tapping out anxious rhythms with her feet. Muffled in the jungular carpet, her foot-tapping diffused through my bones. Rung by rung, I climbed up the towering elephant, the ladder on its side swaying in the breeze. I was one of the only outdoor acts, and only a few people showed up in the audience because of the inclement weather. Rain fell to the same nerve-wracked beat my aunt was drumming, only doing so in grand orchestral cascades.
The elephant trumpeted into slate-faced crowd. No one’s expression changed. I mounted the top of the great beast, standing up tall. While another member of our troupe shocked the elephant with an electrode, I fought to stay steady. It bucked and kicked, tearing up the Earth second after passing second. My hands buckled and skin tore as I clutched at the ropes.
Trudy: Will you stop that awful noise, dear?
Man in Red: Startled, the elephant threw me from its back headfirst into the mud. My red cape, tarnished; my pride…well, it was never much to brag about to begin with.
Trudy: Dear sister, that cape of his has turned him into an absolute fool. I don’t understand why you would want to encourage his delusions.
Mum: Trudy, we’ve discussed this. Children need space to play and learn.
Man in Red: They were both right, of course. The cape did turn me into a fool. Worse, it made me into an embarrassment for her. Unavoidable because of my flamboyancy. Annoying because of my grating voice. A fool because I existed.
Aunt Trudy and Mum both went to bed early that night. Trudy begged the angels for a child under her breath. I knew they were trying to adopt children from some snowbound land, but, as my aunt would say, the hidden man was tormenting her.
I had a feeling I knew this hidden man better than my aunt. He lived in my closet. And every night, ten minutes after I fell asleep, he would sit at the foot of my bed and sing my dreams into my mind. The hidden man wore dark glasses even at night and had a face rather like mine. With his little concertina and bloodstained suit–my mother said that if you poked the walls of our house it would bleed red–his melodies marked the beats of sleep. Dun dun dun dun-dun dun-dun. Mother told me the hidden man had died many years ago, and that I had never even seen him. That didn’t seem to matter. We had so much unresolved between us, I was sure I would hate him if he had died. No, he was alive, and sometimes in my dreams I would feel his touch, like a trail of ants tappiting over my toes. Drawing up into the little cocoon of blankets I made for myself, I would shiver with glee. Maybe someday he would visit me while I was awake.
Deeper and deeper I am drawn.
I feel too tall. Bumping my head into everything.
The hidden man is singing again. I dream of growth.
My feet burst my shoes.
I see the Hidden Man. Despite how tall I’ve grown, I still cannot look him in the eye. His concertina slumps forgotten on the floor. My foot brushes it. No sound.
He leads me to the edge of a cliff. No, the top of a great building. A helicopter pad.
Hidden Man: Watch my arm.
Man in Red: He twists his arm once around. Twice. The bones do not break. Three times. A look of snide resentment crosses his face. I gasp and hold my breath. Don’t worry. The arm is now detached, and the Hidden Man casually tosses it in the direction of the sunlight.
Hidden Man: Give up what you can.
Man in Red: I can feel my teeth loosen. One by one they pop out, creating a morning drizzle of teeth on the ground. One is stuck between my toes, tickling and cutting. I run my finger around the bleeding gums. I want to cry, but nothing is coming. Defanged, I fall to my knees before him.
Singing. It’s the man who is singing the song. I remember this dream, or rather many dreams like it. At this, the man dives off the side of the building and disappears into a fog. Did he hit the ground? I need to know, a conviction I cannot fail to act on. Irresistible forces push at me, and it is too much for my merely human self to restrain. Off I go.
AWAKE! In the morning, I bolted out of bed with my red cape and blasted a hole in the door. Without a mere instant to lose, I tore across the yard. Echoes of alarms rang hollow to me. Mother called. I ignored her. Aunt Trudy raged. Uncle Asa waved goodbye and slumped back into bed. I had escaped.
I had sustained a cut on my lip in the fall. Instead of seeking medical attention I let it bleed freely. Retreating under an awning across the street where some café customers partake in expensive cofee and conversation–the ATMs embedded in the bank wall leer at them like eyes poking through a black forest–I feel the drips of red run down my chin and drop to the ground. When the doors of the café open I can feel cool air rushing across my skin.
Under the awning the people are wearing sunglasses. Strands of my hair blow across their field of vision. Are they seeing the hairline fractures? Do they see the old bones of the pavement start to reach up to their expensive lenses? I put a hand over my mouth, but take it away again. Droplets of blood make lifelike portraits on the ground. Weeds in the cracks–are they vampires now?
As I looked down at the sidewalk flora, a pair of shoes came into view. Free of dust–curious. I followed the conventional logic and looked up and up and up until I met a face. A face that insisted. Feet that were already dancing. Opaque yet entirely obvious. The Hidden Man.
Ah, the Hidden Man.
THE HIDDEN MAN!
Barker: What can we say more about this strange and insistent person?He’s reportedly easier to find at night than during the day, and in the dark rather than in the light. Friend to none, enemy to none, neither stranger nor acquaintance, he’s just part of the furniture here in the Man in Red. Looking at his exquisite, if somewhat bland, attire, we see the very threads from which this story is woven. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to witness an incongruous turn of events! So unpredictable, not even yours truly can truly know which way it will turn!
Hidden Man: Do you hear the sound of a train passing?
I told him that I was trapped in a memory, which was older than trains.
Hidden Man: I would say that the young and the old are often together. What are you doing here?
Fine thing to ask someone in their own memory. I nearly said, “I don’t remember you being here,” but checked myself. Of course I did, since he was here. By his very–and I hesitate but must use the dread word– PRESENCE, he must be part of my memory. My mind drifted back to lessons learned long after these events transpired, long after Guitar stopped singing her possible songs. Oh, the tune! What maddening repetition. Its beauty bit at my lips, snagged like barbed tendrils in my ears, invested its roots in my veins. The Hidden Man looked sympathetic.
Hidden Man: You are not part of the performance, I trust. I cannot read your name.
He drew me close to him. I felt nothing. Nothing was peculiarly comforting, and I felt like a ship held too long at dock that is finally freed from tether and anchor and set to sail free. Pressed firmly into the soft wool of his suit jacket, feeling the tensions and weave of the fabric, I could hear the song again, pulling me back toward the present. Sensations–being a tide, running back and forth on top of a wheel, stretching my legs and diving into shallow water. Rising to the surface.
I find myself breathing steadily. A sunlit afternoon, the cat restless, my clothing clinging to me all summerlike. Awakened from the memory. I had climbed the song back out of the morass, away from the red, the carnivals and barkers, the Hidden Man. And yet…
I could hear the sound of a train passing by on the tracks. My clothes, which are mixed polyester and cotton, still feel scratchy like wool. I touch my lip, and feel blood. Can I open my eyes? I open them to the flash of a red cape. A little child is running around in the yard, humming a familiar tune.
Down, down, down and back again, already bound cell and soul to the melodies. My eyes open again. Lungs fill with air, expel. Rapidly, ever more rapidly, I feel my interior begin to glisten, unacknowledged moisture flooding. Tastes frightening and intimate prowl my nose and pitch themselves onto my tongue. Down my throat air catches fire.
As I convulse and pant, reveling in my own body, I realize I have no inkling where these stimulations originated. I can still hear the song. Someone is humming them into me. Gears and seams. Momentarily, I am struck by the absurdity of beachfront property and kisses shared between family members. I blush, though it might have been the feeling of utter nakedness that was having its way with my skin. I look up from the score of the song, stop staring so hard at the prose on my stomach, and see the Man in Red standing over me.
Man in Red: Who are you? I ask this not to make you quail, but because I need to know.
Was he talking to me? His mannerisms were exaggerated, his eyes saucerlike, white and, in the dusk of the blinded room, transfixing. His voice smacked of a public service announcement, the question haunted by a meaning I couldn’t quite grasp. Was he going off-script?
Man in Red: It’s difficult for us to speak to each other, but I can read your thoughts like speech. I release her and allow her to rest on the bed. The night we shared was far from epochal. Millions of others were hooking up in this building alone. I would account us with the hordes of rats rutting in the crawlspaces, the bacteria replicating. But can she hear me? Can you hear me? Are you not in this performance?
Barker: OH NO! Looks like we have a problem here. Neither of our heroes have any way to contact each other.
Man in Red: My escape! That was what was so important to me. I nearly forgot. Why are these memories becoming so vague? I am hardly an old man. I am still young and virile, alluring and eminently susceptible to feminine lures. I am the one drive to paranoia by guilt, to lust by affirmation, and to disappearance by exhaustion.
Still a young child, I had nothing but a few years of life, the examples of my various family members, and the red cape and other clothes on my back. My escape was, at first, an elementary matter, local in impact and trivial to contain. I lived out in the yard. Still, it was far harder to find food and rewarding work and play while the house was off limits to me. Though I could tell my mother and Uncle Asa never left the house, maybe to avoid being contaminated by their absent son. At night, my mind leapt into wild fantasies of retribution, albeit radically passive ones. In one fantasy my mother and uncle would stalk around the base of a tall stump, freshly hewn. So fresh you could smell the antiquity of those innermost rings, feel the ghosts of ants and passersby, the haunted, absent gazes of the dearly departed for centuries leaving the scene. I stood on top of the stump, legs folded in mockery of the lotus position, meditating on childish anxieties. My parents and Uncle Asa regarded me with smiles. I thought, “what revenge I have wrought!” Those who tried to circle me in, to include me in their games, were now smiling at my coming enlightenment. I always started when snapping out of these reveries, feeling blood rise to my cheeks in embarrassment.
Always the Hidden Man was there.
The points of the stars stung my eyes. I started to rise from my seat and head for the exit.
Hidden Man: Please don’t go. You’ve nourished me here for so long. Look! The Man in Red! Follow him! Run after him!
Man in Red: I’m sorry for knocking you over in the crowd. What could have come over me that I would be so inconsiderate? I think I was running from the police.
Soft green neon lights: EXIT. I could hear someone singing to me outside the walls. A dim face in the window of the door leading outward. The Hidden Man grabbed me and threw me to the floor, but I crawled forward. He kicked me in the shins.
Hidden Man: Miserable woman! Stop your crawling! Stay here. Your quarry is here, the song led you down to see him.
Why had the song ended so abruptly?
Man in Red: You’ve looked so depressed lately. Where have you been this past few hours? I’ve seen your eyes and they’ve been checked out. I was about to call the doctor since I thought you were catatonic.
I: Sorry. I was caught up in the past. Make your move, sir.
Man in Red: We should go out tonight. I heard once that you need to go out and do to make yourself happy. Do, do, do!
I: Remember how you used to complain all the time?
Man in Red: Come on up. It’s time to leave that song of yours.
What we faced was black. What I looked back on was black. We walked on a reflective mirror, the dust of the desert town, the shadow of the bank encroaching. Please release us, Hidden Man. Let us go without. We’ll endure. You are no longer needed.
I: I’m not embarrassed by old pictures of you at the circus anymore.
Man in Red: When did this come up?
I: It was that song.
Man in Red: What changed?
I: Not sure. I think reliving it made me realize how valuable it was for you.
Hidden Man: I’ve lost her forever. She’s put me out, as a fire in water. What was she doing here? Bringing me back to the surface only to thrust me back down. I remember the Man in Red when he came back to his home for the first time. I about burst with anticipation–seeing who this person I loved so well (whatever the barker says, I do have friends) and his close ones–in front of his door.
That was the last time I saw him as a child. The next day the whole visit fell to pieces. Autumn sunshine was no substitute for acceptance, and he was thrown onto the street, tossed out on the grass next to the lawn clippings. The dog had a more honoured placed than he in their memories.
He had made something of himself. Yet, to his family, nothing beyond the clown shoes and the scars the elephants gave him showed up. “Ye have ruined yourself,” said one woman, and another, I think his mother, just shied away.
The song died. A thread broke, and the Man in Red could no longer ride the ladder down back into the past. He would either plunge or hold to the edge, fingers aching.