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Home / Issue 36 / THE TALL MAN



Jon Fotch

            This is what I write down.

            The tall man says things like, “I could pluck your feathers like a rose.”

            He says, “The roar of traffic. Everything it represents will never stop. Something must be done.”  

            He says things like, “Who is it, with respect to your noble concept of justice, that sends the birds crashing into skyscraper windows?”

            His mouth is an aching mess of bomb craters and tombstones.

            I write all of this down.

            I was on my way to Benny’s when they lit me up. They didn’t realize I was getting along just fine without them.  

            The routine. Like knowing every dip and bend of an old song. Where are you coming from? Where are you headed? Is this your vehicle? Had anything to drink tonight? Do you mind if I search the car? These questions are answered differently based on a number of different factors. Given my condition, I told them, “Sure, bring on the carnival.” So they did. They even brought out the dogs. I hate the dogs. Mankind’s cruelest sin is the weaponization of animals.

            Their faces when they had to let me go.

            I drove straight to Benny’s.

            I have a key but I still knock. He floats around in there after you’re in. The room smells like diapers and matchsticks. He bumps against the ceiling and around the doorframe. Flitters around the lamp. In the light he looks down into his hands. He’s as translucent as a termite. The tall man only comes out at night.

            “I saw her today,” I say.

            I get settled while the tall man dances down from a crack in the ceiling, dusts himself off, lights on a chair. A blue smell like turpentine comes as he starts a cigarette from the old brass table lighter. Old and brass like from the time when everything was a piece of furniture. Everything built to last forever. Before we figured out there was money to be made in the throwing away of everything.

            “Did she see you?”

            The TV in the corner throws a holy blue gauze over the room. Hypnotizing anything wild. I don’t watch it.

            “I’m sure of it.”

            He blows thick, lazy smoke rings. Leans forward on his elbows. Heels tapping. His body hums. Eyes up in their sockets thinking. Singing. Praying.

            Over and over in his mind, he sees himself close the trunk.

            “I’m damn sure of it.”

            He says to himself through a blue layer of cigarette clouds:

            “What can we possibly do, now that we’re happy?”

            “I need another gram.” His voice reflects around the room.

            “Lucky for us,” he says, “the nights were never meant to end.”

            The next day the phone rings, and they’re saying I need to come down to the precinct. They have some questions for me regarding an incident that they have reason to believe I have information about. My nose is bloody. I blow it right into the phone.

            “I’ll be by this afternoon,” I say. “I have to work. How did you get my number?”

            “Just see that you come down,” the voice on the phone says.

            That’s it.

            The tall man says things like:

            “At the frontiers of knowledge, science spins itself apart. Out there in the badlands, only art survives, and knowing this, we must plan our escape.”

            “Do me a favor,” he says, “step out of the car for me.”

            When they ask you to get out of the car, they’re really asking you to get into theirs.

            This is what I write down:

            The tall man says, “If I were God, I’d leave a trail of death so deep and wide, it would make Genghis Khan blush.” He says, “Tornadoes kill people sitting quietly in church every year.”

            He says:

            “I crave only oblivion, or something approaching the eternal rumination of the sea.”


            Outside the gas station I left the car running under God’s precious little sky, windows down. Radio loud. The birds skittered mindlessly from power line to roof and back. Circling. Senseless. The trash dust-deviled in the gutters, our final legacy. Someday this is what they’ll dig up. Dust off. Marvel at and measure. There was a chance a streetwalker or junkie might take the car but that’s how chances work. You take them. Chances are free because they are so many.

            Free and made worthless by their endless supply.  

            The jangle of bells as the door swings open. I approach and the clerk never looks away from the gun. Smith & Wesson. The American hollow-pointed magic wand. Magic glancing off the lotto counter and reflected overhead by the icy walk-in beer cooler. The crackling magic of the all-day roller-cooked hot dog. The Western Union sign shimmers in its bright. Instructions for sending money to your family in Mexico. The clerk’s hands move below the counter and press a button that summons another kind of magic.   

            I told the woman near the counter to just be still. Shut up. Don’t move. Stuff like that. She grabbed her child, trying to cover her, smother her with her arms. The child. Her wide, bovine eyes. She hadn’t made a sound, but the mother slipped a trembling palm over her mouth. The whole trembling world moves just like a song.

            His hands are up. Somewhere behind me he’s saying:

            “Can’t get in the safe, timer.”

            He’s done this before.

            When they pull you over, once you stop, they leave a moment. They let it sink in. They let it gather like dark, blind animals’ school in the deep.

            The first one finally tapped on my window. Butt of his flashlight.

            “I’m deputy whoever,” he says, “with the wherever county sheriff’s department, where you headed, had anything to drink tonight?” He says this all-in-one rehearsed run-on sentence. Flat words. Flat the way jazz might sound if the army ran over it with tanks.

            Do you know why I pulled you over?

            Is this your vehicle?

            I think of the tall man. He would say, “It’s God makes the birds fly into skyscraper windows because they’re too clean to be real.”

            I know why he pulled me over. Why they always pull you over.

            He wears a tactical vest that would make Batman jealous. Muscular shaved arms. Shaved head. A shaved and tidy view of the world. Probably had a bad time over in the sandbox.

            I hope he did.

            I feel nothing for him or his partner standing in the blind spot, butt of his hand on his gun. They look exactly alike, like they were stamped out by a flag-draped authority machine in Ohio. It’s the way they stand, you can feel how much they like the power.

            They like the power.

            I like other things.

            That puts us at odds.

            “I need you to step out of the car,” his frown when he says it. All the world will ever give you is smiles and frowns.

            They give you this for your naked body. Paper gown. Paper slippers. A Bible if you want one. Little paper cups of pills that could be antipsychotics, muscle relaxers, mood stabilizers. Something. They give you a long, tall-windowed room with beds full of other paper-dressed goons sick with sweat and wild, acne-dusted faces. They give you sad, pitying looks that say, by way of some vague notion of morality, that their lifestyle is measurably less rehabable than yours. At nine sharp the lights chunk off, and not a soul can be quiet in the night.


            The tall man could be an African elephant. He fills his lungs with cool Kalahari air. With his trunk he shakes a high, narrow palm so hard, it drops its fruit. The dates raindrop to the ground with a sound like a cluster bomb surprising an Afghan wedding.

            The tall man stitches these images together.

            He can’t help it.

            This is what I write down:

            “Let us sing our prayers to heaven, and laugh while the angels cry.”

            The tall man says over and over again, “Just feed me a kitten.”

            The tall man says, “If you want her attention, put a bag of rats and a gallon of gas under her bed.”

            With his big, green eyes, the tall man once saw the Milky Way turn and bend, queasy by way of its angle across the sky. He saw it arc and fall and burn in the night, vapor-red and colossal, and by seeing it, some final, perfect love washed over him, and he was finally able to weep.

            After that he never went to church again.  

            I pull my knees up and the sweat comes.

            The tall man is close, he has to whisper:

            “If a thought or action doesn’t enhance your chances of survival, why would nature compel it?”

            What is happening here?

            Who is speaking?

            Get your shit together, kiddo.

            Moon shadows of the barred and locked windows clockdial across the floor. The pills ramp and settle in. You know their hand by their coming. Bedsprings around the room still and quiet one by one. Outside in the trees the crickets will sing and cry forever. Somewhere far away dime-colored trout are flickering in streams. Right now heavy trucks are groaning across desert highways cut through the mesquite and saguaro, dieseling mute any humble prayer for the sun.

            I can’t escape the knowing of it.

            I pull the thin pillow over my face.

            The tall man begins his dream like this:  

            He’s running with her and up the steep road they began to see the tent piles. They come at random. First here and there, then growing in number until, at last, they’re stacked and twisted into one another so as to be, in a way, one being, heaving and alive. Flaps razored open for windows or doors blowing. Like a living whale found itself ashore and alone. Alien. Gasping. Aware. Canvas and plastic shelter creaking against stakes driven into paved earth by some technique known only to God. Every manner of detritus and gathered makings stacked and piled in front of dark-mouthed hovel. Greasy fires burning low in cans or basins meant to attract the dogs or rats for food or something else, the tall man did not know. He laid eyes on no person. Those living here are the shape of smoke. Shadows. Strange ghosts. She moved swiftly with a confidence unknown in these surroundings. Her perfume trailing. He followed her through the smell of old cooking and reek of trash.

            Then it changes to this.

            A spotlight haloes the tall man votive and low. Warm and set. He might clear his throat. Or he just scratches his temple with one raw-bitten nail. The sound of the audience in their coats and dusty dresses sweeps like a dirty newspaper rustling under a kitchen table or a plastic bag blowing across a late-night intersection where only the streetlight timers click to anchor down the world. Someone or something coughs near the back of the theater. The tall man takes the brass watch out of his pocket, snaps it open, looks down knowing, thoughtful, then snaps it closed again and puts it away somewhere on his person. He holds his hands softly together. And suddenly he’s been speaking for some time indeterminate.

            The tall man says things like, let us never forget, any of us, for all time. Let us remember forever how she tried to put it all into a suitcase and run away.

            He hasn’t aways done the right thing.

            “God prosper you and your kin,” he says in a low voice.

            “May he forgive you.”

            The curtain falls.

            The dream begins to grind and edge with a sound like glass and he says things like:

            “David? Oh, they took him out behind the house and killed him with an eight-pound sledge. They mailed the thing, bloody yet, to the sheriff. It’s a shame. Everyone knows but you.”

            In the night I try to ask him about that.

            But in soft tones he answers, “Come with me, and we’ll kick in the gates of heaven and beat the secrets of creation out of the gods.”

            We lie together. So close I can smell his breath.

            He says every palace in heaven is mortar-slapped together with the poor doomed souls of history.

            How could you not challenge it?

            The true and ultimate sin would be to accept it.

            The cruiser has injection-molded seats scooped out for the handcuffs.

            In the rearview mirror Captain America looks through the back seat window bars. His mouth like he might be chewing tobacco or gum, like he’s thinking about what he’ll have for dinner:

            “Where did you put her?”

            The tall man says things like:

            “Do you have a map?”

            “I’ll show you.”


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