• johnschengber

14: Short Story #1

The line to see the man was around the block, looping around the intersection of Manchester and Price, and conveniently backing up to the one deregulated street with all the liquor stores. People lining up with enough prescience stopped in a store, or sent back an emissary later on, to get a bottle or two that would enliven their slow march to see the man. As a result, what would have been an anxious, somnolent trudge through the December cold became quite depraved and lascivious, making the people feel like part of an indignant mob more so than a carnival queue.

As line-goers came closer to the front — closer meaning anywhere that wasn’t the very back — the pulse of the mob beat faster and louder. The dominant mantras of the day rang out in waves, initiated by those about to enter the exhibit to see the man, and echoed in undulations by the line-goers craning their necks up and around, even though there was nothing for anyone to see beyond the velvet ropes and the discreet black door through which they were so eager to enter.

“Your body! Our temple!” was one of the most repeated and thunderous chants, partly because its message was simple and powerful, and partly because it was by far the most tailored to the event. The line-goers truly believed it, or were fully evincing as much, and it’s not beyond probability that they shouted with high hopes that the man inside could feel his cage rattle with each verse.

What the line-goers did not hope for, or even mildly suspect, was that the man would not be in a cage, but that he would be restrained only by a rope tied around his ankle and fastened at length to a firepole that had existed long before the fire station was converted into the performance space that it is today. If they had known this — that the man inside would be so free — they might not have handed their tickets to the door man individually, an action agentive enough to give each person the satisfaction of having waited patiently, but not quietly, to get in. Instead, if they could have known what was inside, they might have chosen to cower behind their lover or their group’s ring leader, freeing themselves of their ticket-handing duty and subconsciously reserving the right to give another person a small, unspoken fraction of the blame for what they were about to witness. However, they did not know the man inside would be so cage-less, so free, and ultimately at liberty to show himself and be himself.

In the moments between presenting their ticket and reaching the door to enter, a tunnel of silence descended upon that lucky group of line-goers whose time had finally come. They were greeted by darkness and warmth upon stepping through the doorway, as if a fire without flame had been lit. When they realized the darkness was only a hallway, and they simply needed to walk down the hallway towards the light, they drew forward momentum from the hope that at the end it would likely still be warm but also bright. They were walking with a building courage when they heard the first drags of the rope along the wooden stage, like a snake of cloth slithering over splinters. And as they continued forward more timidly, the hallway opened up into a room and they could see that the rope on his ankle was the only thing restraining the man. And finally, at last, they saw the man.

He was just as pure as they had feared. Not a single marking. Not a trace of brand, nor a whisper of the Party’s insignia. He moved around under the spotlight, pacing in the most terrifying calm. He was so bright and whitely monochromatic that he fully disappeared in the darkness and shined painfully in the light. As the line-goers entered — the previous line-goers had already exited to allow for private viewing and the full, obtrusive visual effect — they had to shield their eyes or duck behind whoever led them forward into the room that felt far too close to the man on the stage to be safe. The female staff member sitting quietly in the apron of the room either sensed or predicted their acute anxiety, perhaps a precedent set by previous line-goers, and reassured them that the exhibit could be exited to the back right. The staff did not, however, make mention of the man on the stage or his rope. Nor did she look at him.

The bartender, whose clinking glasses were the only reason the line-goers noticed the bar at all, similarly averted his gaze from the man on the stage by embracing the full level of monotonous distraction that came from polishing every glass on his bar until each was too shiny to see. The bartender’s fear was obvious, and jittery, and it didn’t do much to convince the line-goers that getting a drink and settling into this experience would make it any easier. Nevertheless, they hoped it would, and indulged.

After two rounds, spent entirely facing away from the stage, the ring-leader of this particular group of line-goers took another sip of her beer, swung around on her stool, and deposited her gaze directly on the man. He stood gracefully posed with one leg resting on the bucket that served as his only furniture, and his head was bowed towards his waist-high hands that were engrossed in the production of what appeared to be a bracelet woven from strands of his rope, which he had apparently reclaimed from the acquisitive splinters of the stage floor.

It was disturbing for the woman to watch the man’s muscles move, particularly in coordinated servitude to a craft. His muscles were unobscured and lacked the opaqueness usually gifted by ink or burn or incision. They were so clearly connected, conscious, and even striated, especially in places like his stable, unshifting legs. The woman’s enthrall and terror, plain on her face, compelled her fellow line-goers to join her and spin around on their stools, at which point they too were offended by how close he was to finishing an admirable bracelet made of salvaged rope.

In their silence and stupor, there was a palpable opening of time in which revolution within the friend group became possible, and sensing this, one of the women who had just spun around on her stool broke the silence by placing her feet on the floor. She stood with her legs while her eyes were fixed on the legs of the man on the stage, and she did not say anything to her ring-leader or fellow line-goers, to whom she had always been powerful but forever second-tier, as she approached him. The ring-leader and the rest of the group watched her in stupefaction. When the woman reached the barricade of the singular velvet rope that interceded between line-goers and the stage, a stronger than expected degree of shame and desire arose in her so conspicuously that she attracted every pair of eyes in the room, including those of the man, as she staggered toward him and mumbled something incoherent but obviously degrading. Then she said nothing more. She was entranced.

Her comrades on the stools, who were at this point stunned with their drinks halted at their mouths, rushed to her side, concerned that something invisible was transpiring vis-à-vis her unbreakable eye contact with the man on the stage. They grasped her in desperate, muted, and ineffable expressions of solidarity, and at first did not know how to provide comfort beyond encircling her and moving slowly back from the stage. Again, their irreconcilable silence brought forth a momentary opening of time and a liberation of social bonds that provided fertile ground for upheaval, but on this occasion only resulted in the reestablishment of the old guard, as the ring-leader stepped forward from the bar that she had never left and forcibly broke the silence.

As if from the heavens, she summoned a small but mighty amount of timbre and tone from the pipe organs of her upbringing and managed to distill her group’s collective fear into the most polite and condescending reprimand possible.

“You may not have that bracelet. You are not allowed to have things!” the woman declared.

The group seemed to shudder as they watched the man on the stage begin to diligently shift the contours of his body in response. A sight never seen before, he was demonstrating the possibilities of a slow turn as he dared to face them in full. He was the strictest choreographer of his pure muscles visible through his pure, translucent skin. Although already close, the line-goers gathered closer to each other in apprehension while embracing the woman who had to attempted a coup like a fool; like an errant child. They stood together behind their leader, who was now at risk of becoming similarly hopeless and desirous and was finding it impossible to break eye contact with the man on the stage, though her feet remained firmly on the ground.

The cowering group searched for the most accessible source of their tribal strength. Their chanting sounded at first like a recited family prayer, or perhaps a muffled hum, but it slowly gathered in discernible volume and clarity.

“Your body! Our temple!”

“Your body! Our temple!”

But the man paid no attention.

“Your body! Our temple!”

Even the errant child joined in, quietly.

They got louder.

The man on the stage finally completed his slow turn and directly faced the ring-leader. He heard none of it. Despite the loudness, the room was silent, and in the false quiet time opened again, and closed again, and opened again. The man on the stage knelt down in a precise movement that distracted the woman’s gaze from his gently rising arm, which extended like a perfect counterweight while his knee lowered to the stage floor. At the end of his long arm, his hand held out the bracelet that he had impossibly completed. The echoes of chants erased, and he spoke.

“That is perfect. It is for you.”

The bracelet was feathery by make and rough by nature, and the woman could not control her imagination in wondering how such coarse fibers might feel against his unelaborated skin. As he maintained the taut extension of his arm, and the delicate presentation of the bracelet, she realized how similar his skin was to the leaf of a tree, completely open to visual study and understanding, its internal elements as evident as any exterior texture. Her skin, meanwhile, was covered in the dark accumulation of meaning that she, like all others in the world except this man, had been implored to keep and consecrate ever since she reached the age of disassociating her body from her self. The messages on her body were not of her mind but of the collective consciousness, and they served as the antidote to the archaic principle of simplicity.

The woman noticed the dark lines shading the bony fragments of her own hand, which, in her reverie, had independently lifted by power of her arm to match nearly the level of the bracelet offered by the man. The bracelet was colored and sinewy like the underside of bark. She envisioned the threaded knots laid against the inside of her wrist. She imagined the wind catching a stray fiber. But she could go no further. The woman suffered to imagine, or in great dissent desire, how something as unsophisticated and barren as woven rope might rub incorrectly against the complexities of her canvas. She had no secrets to tell that were not already told, so why would she wear, and therefore bless, something that has done nothing to make meaning or adornment besides threading the of simplest fibers? She was disgusted, she knew, but what she could not understand was the irrepressible urge to slide out of her elaborate sheath of skin, reach over the velvet barrier, and examine the conspicuous pulse rising and falling in the man’s forearm, transparent and taxed by the weight of his most sincere gift.

Capable of burdening such want no longer, the woman gasped and swung her despairing hand in a blurry sideways stroke whose source of strength, whether agony or desire, carried such weight against the man’s arm that his offering tumbled to the stage floor. The bracelet caught on the bed of splinters from which it came, and the woman and the line-goers exited stage left in a desperate shuffle. Outside, they rejoiced at having seen, and needing to never see again, the only man in the world without tattoos.


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