Monday, February 13, 2006

Beware of Stick Men

This is a cautionary tale. Beware of Stick Men. You cannot hear their bones rattle when they walk. You cannot see their darkness when they talk. Coffee will not satisfy them. Where they feed is desolation.

The Stick Man rose from the orange plastic seat to refill his plastic coffee cup, his milky-blue eyes flicking over the other customers, the mothers with small children, the students, the shoppers. He looked no more sinister than his camouflage, than the other failed middle-aged men who congregate at Wendy's, McDonald's or Carl's Jr.'s to pontificate, drink coffee, and convince themselves, if no one else, of their innate superiority.

One of the small army of Ph.D. candidates who never made it, he stayed in orbit around the university, carefully switching majors to avoid finishing his degree, which would have jolted him into society's mainstream, blowing his cover completely. He justified his existence by maintaining, even to himself, that he was a writer. He tutored and taught part time, earning enough to live in his featureless apartment and buy his characterless clothing. Oddly for a man who purported to be a writer, he seemed to have a void where his sense of beauty should have been. In this void lay his menace.

He told himself and everyone else that he was a really nice guy. Maria, his young wife, would have disagreed. Volatile, eager for sex and fun, she had thought he was a knight in disguise come to carry her out of the barrio. She didn't sleep with him before they married, a terrible mistake on her part. At first, he tantalized her, pretending that she was so precious that he wanted to wait to possess her until they married. Then while his fingers probed and caressed, he entered her mind, feasting on the Mariachi bands and bright colors, black jaguars and green jungles, lust and bloody crucifixions, leaving little diseased trails in his wake. When it was time for consummation, he brought her to the edge of ecstasy, then abruptly back when he mounted her and she cried out in pain at the sharpness of his pelvic bones. His penis, she couldn't feel at all. When he withdrew, the bands had stopped playing, the colors faded to pastel, and the jaguars had disappeared with the jungles. Only the bloody crucifixion remained. She had bedded Death, Mr. Bones, the Stick Man. She was pregnant with Death's child. With both him and the child feeding on her, her pregnancy proved almost fatal. When the child was born, a pale-eyed, red-haired girl, she refused to touch it. Recognizing it as his own, the Stick Man cared for it, while Maria, a caged animal, watched and waited for him to leave so that she could range from male to male in the apartment complex, seeking among the firm penises and muscled stomachs the life that had been drained from her. Then one night, while Stick Man slept, she emptied his wallet and was never seen again.

Her leaving provided grist for the mill in which he was creating his image of put-upon nice guy. "My wife slept with everybody but me," he would nasal-whine. "I had to raise my kid." The kid got stoned as soon as she was old enough, and stayed that way until she could run away, a relief for both her and the Stick Man, who then became an authority on ungrateful children. "It's no wonder I have writer's block," he would moan over coffee.

He prowled constantly, looking for new sources of life. Each year's fresh crop of students provided at least one nubile snack, until the snack was warned by those wiser that Stick Man was not a misunderstood genius, but a weirdo, someone to watch out for. Over the years, a sparse, monastic-looking tonsure surrounding his scabrous bald spot replaced the once carroty curls, and a short, patriarchal beard, tufted with gray, covered the weak chin. His high whining voice remained unchanged.

This was the creature who spied Annette on her first trip into Mom's Donut Shop. Plump, blond and full of life, she was a librarian, newly divorced from her real estate salesman husband. Still uncertain in her new found freedom, she sat in the adjacent booth, lovingly contemplating the two chocolate doughnuts on her plate, which Jeff, her ex, would never have allowed her to have. She would devour every chocolaty crumb with no one to sneer about her weight; then, if she felt like it, she would have more. Life was good.

The Stick Man probed the edge of her mind. It was a delicious crispy cookie, fresh from the oven. "Hi, I haven't seen you here before. Welcome to the family." He leaned toward her, his voice soft, approving, very different from Jeff's.

She didn't think much of his looks, but his scrawniness might be a relief after Jeff's height and belly. Jeff had yelled at her about weight, but never seemed to worry about his own. "I don't know what you mean by family," she replied.

"All of us here at Mom's are a family. We look out for each other. Do you like movies?"

She decided that it wouldn't hurt to go to the movies with him. After all, she didn't have anyone to hang out with, and it wasn't as though she was in danger of falling in love with somebody who looked like a kid's drawing of a stick man with sharp, angular shoulders and a big, square, nutcracker head on top. The red beard with those gray patches was really ugly, but then he might be worse without it.

At the movies, he held her hand very gently, caressing her wrist with the tips of his bony fingers. Afterwards they spent most of the night in Mom's, drinking coffee, eating doughnuts and talking. He overwhelmed her with his knowledge, with his suffering, with his incredible loneliness. Like water seeking its level, she rushed in to fill the terrible void that sat next to her.

She went home with him, shuddering a bit when she entered his apartment. The living room was so ugly that it almost scared her. It wasn't just graduate-student shabby: - that she could relate to. It was almost inhuman. Aside from the typewriter, there was no sign that it was the home of a writer. Here were no posters, no books, nothing to speak of the substance of the man who inhabited the place. The furniture, a hideous brown and gold plaid, was anything but inviting. What kind of a person, especially a writer, could be so indifferent to his surroundings? Could the dingy surroundings reflect the spirit of their owner? She considered leaving, but decided, what the hell. Anybody this different from old Jeff had to be worth a go. There seemed to be no TV. She supposed it was in the bedroom.

He was fussing in the kitchen and returned with two mismatched jelly glasses filled with cheap, red wine. "Let's go watch TV." The set was in the bedroom. She kicked off her brand new, bright-red spike heels with the polka dot lining and followed him.

The bedroom was disorderly and dismal. He walked to the window, "Do you like it dark or light? Are you a shy person?" Suddenly self-conscious, she said, "dark please." The drapes slid shut, blacking out the street light, leaving only a small slit of predawn blue.

He sat beside her, rubbing her back and talking. As she relaxed, he pulled her sweater over her head, gasping in delight over her breasts. She sank back, blissful over a man who admired her body to this extent. To be sure in any era but this one, her body would have been considered a wonder. Small waisted with full hips and breasts, she was a Marilyn Monroe, born out of her time. Finally she lay under his hands and lips, completely undressed. Her mind was filled with cookies and crumb cakes, tulips and windmills, baking bread and warm kitchens, laughter and sensuality. Time and time again he brought her to orgasm with fingertips and lips. Being Annette, she wanted more and tugged him on the top of her.

Her cobalt-blue eyes opened wide with horror when those skeleton bones smashed into her pelvis. She put her arms up above her head to keep from touching death. The bone pounding was even more hideous, because she couldn't feel his penis; unsure that there was one, she was terrified that his spinal column would flap between his bones and touch her. His mind stalked the Dutch kitchen that was hers. It devoured the cookies and cakes, withered the tulips and stopped the windmills, stilled the laughter and froze the sensuality. She tried to draw completely inside herself to hide from the repulsive, red-bearded skeleton that sprawled between her legs and across her body. He was unutterably worse than Jeff, unutterably revolting.

She was in shock by the time he rose, turning his back to her to pull on a dingy pair of red boxer shorts. She never really saw his body. "Coffee?" he nasal whined.

Moving as though lobotomized, she pulled the sheet over her, "No."

The second he walked out of the room, she jumped from the bed, grabbed her panty hose, stuffed them in her purse along with her bra, threw on her sweater and jeans, and rushed barefoot out the door and down the clanging outside staircase that led to the seedy parking lot where her car sat waiting. She had to escape from this vampire of the soul. She hiccoughed great gasps of air. Getting into the car, she gagged, but nothing came up. "My red shoes," she whimpered, as she threw the car in gear and peeled out of the parking lot.

Part of the horror was that she didn't understand the nature of the violations that had taken place. He certainly hadn't raped her, and the preliminaries had been nice. He hadn't said anything awful or been mean to her in any of the usual ways. He'd even offered her coffee when it was over. Why was it so awful? He was a perfectly nice man, just ugly, and she was being an ass. Or was she?

The sun was sparkling through the prisms that hung from her front window when she arrived home. Sprawling on the bright yellow carpet in the sunlight, she tried to infuse herself with the purity of the color. "God, I feel filthy," she shuddered, then got up to draw a steaming, fragrance-filled tub bath. While the water was running, she went to the second bathroom for a shower, before the tub bath. When she was finally immersed in the tub, the warmth of the water and liveliness of the scent began to bring her back to life. On the radio, Shirley Verrit sang Salome's grief and revenge and things began to grow in Annette's mind like crystals from a kit. "Oh, Annette, what did you do?" she asked herself. "Shit!" She had only 18 minutes to get to work. God, what if she saw him? What if he called?

The Stick Man was replete. He avoided Mom's, thinking that Annette might be there. He'd feasted rather well last night and feared today's probes would be met with sour milk rather than cookies. Instead, he went to Carl's Jr.'s where he could sit near to the window, watch the gorgeous girls go by and contemplate his next victim.

By now, Annette had made some progress in refurbishing her mind after the night's encounter, but was still feeling weak. In addition, things were not growing back the way they had been. The cinnamon-scented kitchen was tweaked. The cookies, the tulips, and windmills didn't come back. In their place was Annette as Salome, dancing with Stick Man's head on a platter, shattered windshields and red rage, carpet tacks and dum dum bullets. How dare he? How double-damn dare he do this to her? She'd get him.

At noon, she walked out of the library and hit every fast-food joint in the area until she sat across from him in Arby's. One quick probe and he retreated, mottled beard jutting out over the bobbing Adam's apple.

"I want my red shoes."

"You want to come over and get them?"

"NO! You bring them tomorrow. I'll leave my car open, at Mom's. You can put them there."

"What's wrong?" this with pretended innocence.

"You're a slimy son of a bitch. That's what's wrong. What did you put in that lousy wine? What did you do to my mind?"

"Hey, you seemed to be having a good time. Then you ran away like a crazy woman. If I'd known you were a nut case, I wouldn't have asked you out."

"Just put my shoes in my car. I'll leave it at Mom's tomorrow." She was out the door without a glance.

Stick Man brooded, then went home to slash and gash her shoes with his butcher knife, before throwing their mutilated remains in his dumpster. The next morning, he went to Wendy's instead of Mom's. She parked at Mom's, went to work and then came back to the car to look for her shoes. They weren't there. She drove to Stick Man's apartment. He wasn't there. Something made her look in the dumpster. There were her pretty red shoes, bleeding their polka dot linings. This was too much. She rummaged among the tools that Rich had left in the trunk of the car, emerged with a heavy hammer, and advanced on her enemy's 1987 Chevy. The hammer did a very satisfactory job of shattering the Chevy's windshield and denting its doors. The neighborhood was such that no one thought of calling the police, although there were a few amused faces peering from behind sagging drapes. Pleased that she still had time to get back to work before her lunch break was over, she drove to the library and parked in the staff parking lot. It seemed a good idea to stay away from Mom's for a while. She felt somewhat cleansed. An anemone seemed to be trying to push its way up in the junk yard that her mind had become since the previous night.

After work, she picked up a bottle of cabernet and a pizza, deciding to spend the night alone. Perhaps, she would spend every night alone. She liked her own company and she certainly didn't intend to worry about weirdo, skeleton men doing nasty things to her mind. She shuddered at the memory and took another shower. Sweet scented and relaxed, wine and pizza in hand, she settled on the couch, her knitting close at hand, and Mahler's 7th playing in the background, while another flower, perhaps a daffodil, worked its way through the tacks. Even her old cat seemed extraordinarily peaceful.

Then the telephone rang. It was Stick Man, not content to let well enough alone, raging at what she had done to his car. She hung up. He called back - and back - and back. Then he called back again. The anemone and the daffodil retreated. She drank three glasses of the good wine in quick succession, dressed in jeans and walking shoes, got out her hammer and prepared to do battle. She drove to his apartment and beat on the door. He didn't answer, so she battered it with her hammer and went home, defiantly stopping at Mom's to pick up a half dozen of her chocolate frosted favorites. The junkyard, cum battlefield, of her mind, now seemed diffused with the soft green of tender new grass. Stick Man receded. Tomorrow was another day and all of that. Perhaps the tulips and windmills would be back. She went home and went to bed, sleeping the sleep of the just, until the knock at the door.

Stick Man had called the police. They were polite, almost apologetic, as they informed the sleep-rosy Annette that he had filed a complaint against her. Would she please come down to the station with them? There, she discovered that he had not only filed a harassment complaint, but was also attempting to find ways to have her committed. He would withdraw his complaints if she would leave town. Two days later, she was gone.

He was getting hungry more often now. With each feeding, the thing in him that fed on life and beauty demanded stronger fare. The sweet young snacks on which he'd perfected his act didn't satisfy, although, he scored often enough. Enter Emily -- not at all the sort of woman who frequents fast-food places. Unlike Stick Man's other victims, she was a professional, a highly respected astronomer, a sophisticate and a full-fledged member of the community on the fringes of which he existed. The Faculty Club was closed for repairs, so Emily wandered across the street from her office in search of coffee, not companionship. Wendy's was crowded and she stood uncomfortably trapped in the cattle shoot designed to herd customers into orderly lines. He spied her and rushed across the restaurant to offer her a place at his table when she emerged from the shoot. Off base, there was little she could do but accept.

He made an initial run at her mind and returned confounded. It was filled with the wonders of the universe - galaxies and rainbows, East Indian curries and cinnabar, mathematics and metaphors, snow leopards and mountain passes. He retreated, the feast perhaps too rich for him. She looked at him uncertainly, vaguely aware of his probe, unaware of the nature of the enemy, unaware that it is the enemy.

She saw no reason for defenses. This ugly man could never threaten her. She observed him objectively - - the big, square head going bald inside its circle of lank curls, the pinkish, grizzled beard, the wet slit that is the mouth, moving incessantly inside the beard, the pale blue eyes scanning her intensely, the scrawny neck, alive with its bobbing Adam's apple. She is unaware that she would run screaming if she could probe his mind as he has done hers.

His conversation surprisingly engaging, she stayed in Wendy's longer than she had intended, returning to her office rather pleased with the exchange.

Several days later, he called her for coffee. Not wanting to take him to the now repaired Faculty Club, she agreed to meet him anywhere but Wendy's. He suggested Mom's Donut Shop. She accepted, secure that she would run into no one that she knew, and feeling a bit of a snob, because she is rather ashamed to be seen with this man.

An elegant woman, she is admired by her students for her casual flair. Today her rangy frame is covered by a raw silk pants suit. A cream colored satin tee shirt peeks from under the khaki jacket, matching her slim pumps. She has been trying to think of Stick Man as an interesting nonconformist, but has been largely unsuccessful. Today, he seems to have taken some care with his appearance. He wears what seems to be a new shirt and looks quite decent. He is, for him, quite cheerful. Both are surprised when she looks at her watch to discover that three hours have gone by and she is late for her department meeting.

The moist slit inside the bearded thatch curved into a smile as he watched her leave. Her openness has left him free to roam her mind, a veritable supermarket from which he has yet to make a withdrawal. He contemplates a long-term relationship, thinking with pleasure of living with this cornucopia, feeding on it, but never totally depleting it. He is aware that she is more fragile than she knows. He has learned of her self-imposed celibacy, her joy in not depending on another human being for her happiness. He knows exactly how to play it.

Meanwhile the first of Emily's defenses seemed to be crumbling. After the department meeting, dismal as are all such meetings, she surprised herself by lifting the phone and calling the office that Stick Man and several youthful part-timers call theirs. After he agreed to meet her for dinner, she asked herself why she was doing this. Could she, she wondered, be ready to lift her self-imposed celibacy? Certainly not with this man.

They compromised on a moderately priced, out-of-the-way Vietnamese place where the food was tolerable and she was unlikely to be seen by anyone who knew her. It was beginning to seem that meeting at her apartment would make more sense in terms of privacy. They closed the place and Stick Man invited her to his apartment for coffee. She refused and dodged his calls for two days.

On the third, she was annoyed when he showed up at her office and hurriedly left with him, to get him out of there before her colleagues saw him. All she needed was to have her reputation ruined by this campus character, whom she was seeing for some completely unfathomable reason.

In the end, she invited him to her third floor apartment to watch a movie on the VCR. She made a Cajun shrimp dish; he brought a bottle of undrinkable wine, which she hurriedly refrigerated before bringing out the decent little red that she'd had the foresight to pick up. They sat next to each other on the couch in front of the television.

A self-styled authority on film, he proved impossible as a movie- watching companion. On the plus side, he rubbed her stiff neck and back. It had been years since she had accepted a kindly touch, and, like her cat, Orion, who watched from the other side of the room, she gave herself up to this pleasure. With the glow of the wine and pleasure of the back rub, she was almost sorry to send him on his way when she saw the time. Still, she knew that she did not want to pay the price for a relationship, and, certainly, she did not want a romance with this weirdo, although his probes of her mind had given him the ammunition to sound like the man of her dreams, clothed in an unlikely guise. The frog prince and all of that.

Greedy, he had been unable to resist grazing just a bit, and, when he left, she found herself vaguely discontented with her almost perfect life. He had taken only a nip here and there; still, wherever he nipped had left a small slimy sore. She drove to the lake and spent hours watching the waves lap the shore, trying to find what was wrong. Of course, she could not identify the nebula that was missing from her mind, nor the moonbeam; thus she made, a serious mistake. She decided that perhaps she was lonely, that perhaps the Stick Man was what she had waited for her entire life. Perhaps she had never before really known what she wanted, so she rushed home to telephone him.

"Can you come for dinner tonight?"

He could. She made an elegant ragout which he made small pretense of enjoying, as he'd have been happier with a burger and fries. He talked a lot about the previous women in his life and how they spoiled good food by adding too many ingredients. He drank a lot of her wine and obviously enjoyed the grocery store cake. Something inside tried to warn her, but she stilled the voice, telling herself that she had to learn not to be a yuppie snob.

He nibbled more than her ears that night. He stole a comet's tail, some of her metaphors, a mountain pass and a third of a rainbow. When he left, she was lonely and thought that it was for him, because she didn't know that what was missing was a comet's tail, three metaphors, a mountain pass and a third of a rainbow. In addition, her galaxies were shot through with tiny black holes.

He left, as gleeful as a negativity can be. Her missing him was a dividend. Perhaps like Genghis Khan's men, who cut steaks and drank blood from their living horses, he could continue to feed on her resources, saving him from looking for new victims. If he moved in with her, he could have her mind and her money both.

Instead of going home, he stopped at Mom's, where he hardly noticed the attractive young women who chattered and ate in the next booth, unaware of their narrow escape.

Emily was disconcerted. What was the matter with her? Why did she feel like this? Had she learned nothing? Could this be love? Searching her mind, she found rubbish where wonders should have been. Perhaps she really was nothing. Perhaps she should fear loneliness and old age. Perhaps she'd spent too long gazing outward. Perhaps without a lover, without this lover, she was truly nothing. Able to stand it no longer, she called Stick Man.

"Would you like to come for dinner on Saturday?" He would. He wrung his freckled fingers with delight. On Saturday, he would Feast.

When Saturday came, Emily made tuna fish casserole, with corn instead of peas, using a can of mushroom soup for sauce. She resisted adding the curry that would have lifted it a bit from the pedestrian. Before she had finished, he was at the door with another bottle of undrinkable wine wrapped in a paper bag. Although she had suggested what brand to buy, he had determined to impose his will in this as everything else. They would eat what he liked and drink what he liked. This time she opened his bad wine, setting it next to his glass. She also opened a bottle of decent wine, placing it next to her glass. Foiled, he considered making a remark about her rejection of his gift, but thought better of it.

Now that he had her where he wanted her, he would have some fun. Drawing on what he had stolen from her, he eroded her confidence, ground at her self-esteem and poured his cheap wine in her wounds.

Shaken, Emily poured herself another glass of cabernet, "Why are you saying these things?" Then rage building, "How dare you assume that I would listen to such bilge. How dare you!" He only smiled. She ordered him out.

Instantly, he fed. First he slurped the galaxies, then the rest of the rainbow, leaving swathes of fetid emptiness. Mount Meru disappeared into a void. She reeled. Her center was gone. This idiot, this geek was destroying her and she didn't even like him. How had he done this? Where had she gone wrong? The sunshine in her mind was gone. No weakling, she pulled herself together. "You don't have the option to return. Please don't call me."

Giving her a satisfied grin, he sucked what he thought was the last earthly delight from her mind, leaving only greenish swirls. Then he was gone.

What was she to do? Baffled, she wandered from room to room. The void was terrible. Where was she? For the first time she knew the meaning of desolation. There was no meaning to anything, not her work, not to the beauty of the ocean nor the glory of the skies. Even her cat looked alien. There was no reason to cry or laugh. Nada! Nada! Nihil! Nothing! Yet there was something, a small iridescent bubble he had missed. She reached for the telephone.

"David, do you want to go out for a drink?" She couldn't believe the plaintive note in her voice.

"No, but why don't you come over here?" Good old Dave, always the rock.

"Thanks, I'll be right there." After the standard search for the car keys, stepping in Orion's water dish, and dropping her purse twice, she headed for the car. A country music star twanged misery from the radio, while she drove wild eyed across town--"I am crazy--I am really crazy. How bizarre! Maybe going crazy is like getting a virus." Horns blared, but she arrived safely at Dave's house.

"I'm nuts!" she announced, almost weeping at the sight of the fire in Dave's fireplace and the peace of the room. "I'm wacko! Deranged! Demented! I've lost my center! I'm so scared."

Across town Stick Man licked his lips.

"You mean you're under psychic attack," Dave's voice was soft. She looked at her old friend's face, really seeing him for the first time. The smile lines in his desert tanned face deepened. "You're safe here."

Mount Meru and a quarter of a rainbow began to poke through the rubble. Emily sat on the floor in front of the fire. Dave handed her a glass of wine and sat in a chair behind her, gently massaging her neck while she berated herself. "How could I have been so incredibly stupid? Why don't I learn?"

"Hey, I've never seen you so human before. What happened anyway?"

"It was a real horror story...."

While Emily told the story, Stick Man shifted uneasily in his orange plastic booth. Although he had just fed, he was hungry again. A swirl of color and light, glittering full-spectrum refractions, suddenly escaped from the sucking morass that was his mind, like a dancing dust devil escaping to its rightful owner. Conscious only of the void that needed to be filled, he lurched out the door after Jennie, a crisp-curled, dark-eyed graduate student who'd stopped on the way home from the library to pick up some doughnuts for her breakfast.

His great need made the attempted penetration clumsy. Revolted, she felt the mind rapist, before she saw his figure pacing itself behind her. "Use your enemy's strength against him," the words of her Akido teacher strengthened her. Whirling, she faced him, her mind a mirror reflecting back on him the horror that he was. Then she made her way home, the little heels of her boots tapping lightly on the moonlit street.

Emily, suddenly drowsy, leaned against Dave's legs until he slipped to the floor beside her, and for the first time held her sleeping in his arms.

A happy ending you say? Because Emily escaped and found true love, because Jennie fought back and won? Oh, no. Remember poor Maria endlessly searching city streets for her lost jungles and jaguars. And Annette, Annette of the red shoes, the luscious Annette who fought so bravely, jobless, friendless, driven from her sparkling and aromatic kitchen. Watch carefully. These feeders on life and joy lurk everywhere.

Beware! Beware the Stick Men!

by Felicia Florine Campbell