Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
My wife, Nina, kidnapped me to go shopping pretty much every time we visited a new city.
Her job as a prominent sales executive kept her traveling and as a book translator, my work and my laptop meant I could be anywhere to do my job. Still newly married, she insisted on me taking her latest business trip to New Orleans. We found ourselves eventually in the Midtown Mall, one of the largest and oldest malls in the Big Easy.
The mall was an old building, easily from the turn of the century, rebuilt, modernized twenty five years ago; now too bright, filled with expansive mirrored surfaces in the strangest of places, supposedly to give the mall a sense of added dimension. To me, it still felt a little too small. I simply had no idea what lurked beneath its ancient skeleton.
It would have been a historical eyesore anywhere else but here; its monstrosity was muted, almost able to be hidden in the strangeness that is New Orleans; gilded and gaudy like an overworked and too old lady of the evening bristling with a surplus of makeup and cheap jewelry. My wife regaled me of its history but I was hot, tired…crabby. My attention wandered. I could not be bothered with making the effort or the time to listen.
A decade later I sat in the darkness, listening to my heartbeat, the only sound left to me. I had a surfeit of time now.
Back then, after a lunch in a restaurant that made me wonder about the health codes, serving food just a touch spicier than my out of shape body and powerful antacid could handle, we returned to the tiny, often twisted avenues of the French Quarter pretending to be tourists. I hated travelling and in particular wandering.
I preferred to know where I was and where I was going so after the claustrophobic streets I didn’t recognize, filled with sights and sounds the locals had learned to ignore, the crowds of the mall were almost welcome. It was at least clean, light and airy and the bustle was comfortably familiar in that unpleasant way a family reunion is familiar. You know the people but you’re not sure you like all of them.
She shopped seeking specialty stores she’d discovered online and I dragged behind her, hating every minute of it. I loved my wife, but I disliked her intense dedication to shopping. To be fair, she was the big earner in our household so, as long as she could cover the cost, I shut my trap, enjoyed her company and kept my complaints to myself. When I could.
The time came, as it inevitably did, that she looked at my clothing and declared “You need a wardrobe update.” She said my clothing was too monochrome, too colorless and for me to lighten my mood, I needed to lighten my color palette. This is a variation of a conversation every time we head out the door to her latest mall.
My response to Nina’s efforts was to agree with the appropriate man-mumbling, grunts, and disapproving sounds until I found an item of clothing that was least offensive to my earth-tone preferences and overall don’t-really-care-about-how-I-look fashion sense.
Don’t get me wrong. I kept myself clean and neat, a side-effect of my OCD, but since we got married, she’s decided how I looked needed to evolve to what she thought was appropriate for me. In a way, I had become a fixer-upper project. My mother kept telling me to pick my battles. So I waited until her arms were full and headed off into my fashion purgatory known as a men’s dressing room. As I made my way through the mall, I had the impression someone was watching me more than once. Ex-military, having served two terms, my paranoia stayed with me even after a decade out of the service. I never saw anything or anyone so I chalked it up to travel anxiety, fatigue or a lingering effect of my sour stomach.
But the feeling came back strongly as I walked into the dressing cubby. The standard issue, eight by eight space, beige walls, tiny bench, two hooks, filled with unreturned clothing casualties which didn’t make the grade strewn wildly around the room.
Focusing, I could see the tiny slivers of straight pins everywhere from highly packaged dress shirts, scattered as if rained down from a neglectful pin heaven. Looking at the shirts in my hand and realizing there was no particular place to put the two dozen pins from my own shirts, I overcame my inner neatness compulsions and added my contribution to the pin-pocalypse at my feet.
And that’s when I saw him. Out of the corner of my eye, only for a moment, I had the impression I was not alone. I jumped, startled and turned but no one was there.
I checked the door, clicked the latch again suffused with a momentary burst of paranoia but no one was there. I listened, frozen still and all I could hear was the crinkling of a shirt being released from its paper and plastic and an allergy sufferer two cubes over wrestling with his overproduction of phlegm. Putting on the first fuschia collared shirt, I winced as I turned back to the mirror and finished buttoning it.
And there he stood. A Black man who was not me, apparently unaware of me, in the mirror. Inside the mirror, within the frame of the mirror.
As a man of science, degreed and educated, my first assumption was I was seeing polarized glass and a room behind this one for security. But when I got close to the glass, the second thing dawned on me. There was no reflection of me. So caught up in the man, this oversight became apparent when I drew close to the glass. It was more like an LED screen than a mirror.
He seemed unaware of my interest in him, he continued to look at himself in the mirror moving ever so slightly. He continued to dress and turn and style as if it was as normal as could be. Then I smiled and looked around for hidden cameras. I figured, now someone had to be trying to punk me and catch me looking crazy. I searched the frame, looked at the ceiling for those black camera balls. Searched for sprinkler-based fire extinguishers which can have cameras hidden within them.
Did I mention I was paranoid?
After a thorough search, I decided I just wasn’t sure what I was seeing. And decided to pack up and go to another booth. I might be crazy but I was certain, crazy was sure to be localized to this particular booth.
Hurriedly, I gathered my collection of brightly colored shirts and attempted to flee the company of the man in the mirror. As I grabbed the latch I discovered the booth door would not open. The slide didn’t work, no matter how hard I pulled on it. The lights in the room began to flicker.
Panicked I called to my wife. Sometimes she would stand there waiting for me to come show her how great her decision was. “Nina, are you out there?”
I turned to look at the mirror and for the first time, his eyes locked mine. An intense stare, filled with a hunger that was palpable. I felt exposed, the scrutiny was painful, every pore and aspect of my being was being taken in, as if he were trying to understand all that there was to me. Then he turned his face away from mine when a hint of sadness appeared in his eyes.
The light in the room flickered, longer this time. When the lighting stabilized something was different. I could see myself in the mirror.
No, let me rephrase that. I could see me through the mirror. I was trying on the shirts. But I could feel myself and I wasn’t moving. I watched myself get dressed. I leapt forward hitting the mirror with my face. I screamed my wife’s name but there was no sound. I looked at the dressing room I was standing in and there were clothes, piles and piles of them. But this wasn’t just the dressing room. From my side there was the space of the room and a door behind me. Just like the one in front of me. In front of my body.
There was only one thing hanging up in this other dressing room. A suit. A beautiful suit like something my grandfather used to wear. He might have called it a zoot suit. It was still pristine, crisp, the only thing not crumpled on the ground, not torn, not shredded. I realized most of the clothing I could see was torn savagely, again and again.
I watched my body get dressed again and again and banged against the mirror impotently. When I, er, he was done dressing, my body, he was in my body, had decided to wear the outfit my wife had chosen out of the dressing room.
He turned to the mirror, made an expansive gesture, part bow, part salute and with a wink he left me. Nina smiled, pleased with my transformation and he grabbed her, pulled her close to him, drank her in, patting her ass and disappeared into the store.
I sat on the bench and turned toward the door in my room. Where did it go? Could I leave it? I was terrified but I couldn’t just let him leave with my body.
I ran to the door and opened it. Darkness. At first, completely dark, then I could see flickering in the distance. A flicker akin to shadows falling on a window.
I ran. I heard the door slam behind me. There was no light now but the flickers before me.
The first shimmering field brightened in front of me. As I reached it, it had the same cold feel as the mirror in the dressing room. I pressed my face against it, straining my eyes. It was another mirror in a different part of the mall. I could see the echoes of people passing by, but it was smoky, diffused, difficult to see through. I had to concentrate to see anyone.
Except for him. I could see him, he passed out of my field of vision. Turning around I found the next patch of light and ran as fast as I could. The ground was smooth and had a strange give in it but I could run and that was all that mattered. I reached the next surface and it was long, fifteen or twenty feet. It was the mirror outside the store.
I could see him. He was laughing with her. She was the most animated I had ever seen her. I banged on the glass but no one seemed to be able to hear me, except for one woman who was leaning against the wall. She jumped as if startled and then walked on.
I followed them to the edge of the mall.
He cast a knowing glance in my direction every time I changed mirrors. Gloating. Laughing at me. I chased them until I was right behind them at the entrance we first came in.
They stood at the entrance to the mall for a few minutes. He seemed nervous. This was the most like me he had looked since he’d stolen my body, tired, angry and anxious. He stood near the doorway as if he wasn’t sure he could leave. He told her to wait and ran back into the mall. I followed him as best I could, never letting him get too far out of sight.
He stopped at a flower store and gave the young woman behind the counter a smile while ordering a particular flower arrangement. While she worked he stepped outside and stood in front of a mirror. He was looking at himself and then he turned his gaze into the mirror-verse, towards me.
I was surprised to hear him, the last sound I would hear besides my own voice. “I would say I am sorry, mon ami, but I am not. I have spent sixty years where you are now. The air is fresh and filled with promise.” Even while he said it, I realized the voice was in my mind. His lips weren’t moving. To anyone watching he was just a particularly vain idiot posing in a mirror. But his face was clearly not benign.
I could feel the connection between us. Something almost tangible. I tried to reach out and touch it, pulled on it, but it’s was like a rope covered in oil, no place to grip, no way to hold it. There was a hint of sadness but I could feel another thing. A feeling of disconnectedness, a hidden rage, a burning hatred unable to be expressed until now.
His face tightens. He clenched his teeth and his eyes narrowed. “I will never go back, but more importantly, you will never leave there. Get comfortable, my body is old, you may find it a bit achy from time to time.”
I was speechless. What did you say when you found yourself in my situation? I spoke and wrote five languages, and knew half a dozen others better than passably and there was nothing in all of those languages for what was happening to me. While I could not find my voice, my rage was palpable, almost visible between us.
“Now, now. Do not think harshly of me. I shall enjoy your young and beautiful wife and I will make your body the temple it should be. Did you know I was winded just climbing a flight of stairs? I barely have the strength to engage in my favorite activity…but it has been so long, I will find a way to make it work.”
He stepped away from the mirror and went back into the flower shop. I lost sight of him and looked around for another mirror to see him with. Across the mall, I raced until I could look into the flower shop. He paid for his flowers and then the young woman came from behind the counter. He pointed at a number of other items inside a cabinet and after selecting one the young woman went back to the counter.
He slipped off my belt and followed closely behind her. There was a moment of surprise as he skillfully whipped the belt around her neck and pushed her down behind the counter. I lost sight of him again. Frantically I looked for something closer. I saw a mirror behind the counter on the ceiling. I ran to it but the mirror was higher than I could reach. I saw a blurred surface, another metallic cabinet behind the counter. I knelt down and strained myself to see through its imperfect surface.
I watched the light go out in her eyes. I wanted to scream and the mirror-verse trembled as I watched my body in muted horror. He stood up and smiled into the shiny cabinet, skillfully slipping his belt back on before he picked up his flowers. He walked out like any other customer and headed back downstairs. I dived to the next shimmering interface heedless to the physics of this place and followed him to the very edge of the mall and my wife. The two of them passed one more long mirror before leaving. He turned, giving Nina the flowers, adjusted his tie, and my mind echoed with his final taunt, “Au revoir, monsieur, we will surely never meet again.”
They strode out into the humid afternoon, mosquitoes buzzing hungrily after them. I banged on the mirror, screaming wordlessly until the lights went out in the mall. Then the outside of my prison matched the inside, a complete and total darkness.
A Man Who Wasn’t There © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved