No Reply No Reply

December 6, 2018

43. Attribution

The city was sprawling and the streets were buzzing. Black gum flecked the sidewalks and horns honked and people scuffled along busily. The city was awake for the day and its people with it. Down the sidewalk a rough looking man sat on a flimsy toothpick chair. He had a few bags surrounding him and one of his arms rested on a walking stick propped in front of him. His mangy hair was silver and blew lifelessly in the occasional breeze. His eyes were half open, his jaw was slack, and his lips were open just enough to show a graveyard of teeth.

A block down the street another man approached. His appearance was much more polished but this was his casual self: clean and orderly. He walked without hurry but saw the homeless-looking man ahead and recalculated his path. He saddled the left of the sidewalk, furthest from the man who slumped along the wall of the right side.

As the neat man approached the rough man raised his head and opened his eyes widely. He looked directly at the approaching man. “Thomas, right? Can I call you Tom?”

Tom, the clean and orderly, slowed his pace to a standstill. “Yeah, Tom. That’s right. How do you know my name?” He was awestruck. Some old ruffian claiming to know his name—what else did he know?

“I’ve been watching you,” said the man, “My name is Terrance.” His voice was smooth and pure, a complete schism from his aesthetic. “Ah, and this might help…” Terrance spit out a mouthpiece and revealed a perfect set of pearl teeth. Then he removed a wig to show a full head of auburn hair. Three decades fell off a few movements deconstructing the facade. “Its a show. Sorry to throw you off like that.”

Tom was stunned. He quickly glanced behind him searching for a camera, someone recording this prank. But he also looked back at Terrance to follow the rouse closely. “How do you know me?”

“Ah, that’s irrelevant. Its never how its always why. Here, take this,” He pulled a book from one the bags and handed it to Tom. “Learn it and know it. Meet me here tomorrow. Same time,” Terrance began to put the dentures of horrible teeth back in and finally pulled the balding, wispy wig over his natural and healthy hair. He glanced up and waved Tom along, shooing him away.

Only when Tom was another block up the street did he notice the book in his hand. He now walked slowly and thoughtfully. The book was light and thin but hardcover and well bound. No title or author was on the spine or cover. Only on the inside did he see attribution, “J.B. Luis,” and a date, 1932.

That evening, at Tom’s apartment, he opened the book and started to read. It was a wonderful novel filled with double meaning and hidden texts. There were moments of mystery and fantasy and even a character that Tom compared to Terrance: young and clean but disguised as a down-and-out bum to dissuade wandering eyes. Tom didn’t finish the novel that night. But he decided to meet Terrance again.

Tom set his alarm early and set to the streets to find Terrance. Through the same gridded streets and dodging the same piles of trash, fresh gum, and broken pavement, he saw him sitting there. Terrance still had his walking stick and thin silver hair moving listlessly as garbage trucks pulled the wind.

Terrance jumped at the sight of Tom. He lost the same clandestine and sly transition from one role to another and simply spoke as himself, “You came back! Excellent.” He regained himself and nodded, pulling back an odd curtain that hung in front of the indistinct wall. The hidden wall opened to a dark and uninviting makeshift door. “Go in, go in! They’re waiting,” Terrance spoke softly and urgently.

Tom hesitated. This is why he came. He took Terrance’s word and revisited. He had not finished the novel but had some faith, some step toward a mystery greater than himself. The hesitation melted, he looked at Terrance, nodded and stepped inside. Terrance let the curtain fall and darkness fell all around Tom. A silence covered his ears as his eyes adjusted.

“Is that Tom?” a voice said from the dark.
“It must be!” another replied.
“Come on, come on!” a third said.

Tom was at a total loss for words. He couldn’t look back for Terrance—he didn’t know forward or backward or up or down—everything was pitch black.

A switch flipped and a single fluorescent bulb lit orange around a nominal space. Only three faces could be seen, hovering at three different heights. The rest of their bodies were entirely absent in the darkness. Tom stirred and took a step nearer. “Hello,” he said.

“Tom, we are so pleased you’ve returned,” the tallest said.
“I trust you’ve read the book!” the shortest chimed.
“Not only read but completed. Do you have appropriate portions memorized?” pressed the final face.

Tom noticed that despite the faces hovering in the darkness their necks or shoulders never came into the light. As if they did not exist. Simply faces in the dark, with voices even darker.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I did not finish the book. I began it. It intrigued me and I will finish it. But I did not have the time,” Tom said excessively apologetic, perhaps tinted with fear in this empty space.

There was a lasting silence. Disappointment and despair filled the room even before their voices.

“It seems this task may be too much for you,” said the shortest face.
“Indeed, we have asked enough,” said the tallest.
“You may leave now,” said the last face with a thick tone of finality.
“I can finish it—I truly enjoyed the piece. I planned on finishing the book today,” Tom expressed.
“You may leave,” reiterated the last face sternly.

Tom stood for a moment. He was filling with confidence but had no argument in this strange hole in the wall. “Very well,” he concluded, “I will finish the book at home this evening no matter your opinions. Sorry to have disappointed you all.” And he turned around to the exit. Only a hairline thread of light betrayed the door and so Tom pulled the curtain and stepped out.

The light blinded him and his eyes adjusted grudgingly. Terrance’s chair and mess was still scattered but Terrance and his walking stick were gone. Tom looked up and down the block for any sign of the mysterious man.

Onward Tom walked to continue his day. He was uncertain if he would finish the book anymore.