Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A man I met

So today I went back. Slow day again so I took off early. I asked my boss, and he said it was fine but asked where I was going and I gave a shockingly incoherent and evasive answer. His eyebrows rose and he gave me the most conspiratorial wink I have ever seen a real person give. I quiver in dread wondering where, exactly, he though I was going and what sort of person he thinks I am.

Anyway, I still wasn't certain where the little sandstone archway was. I have been replaying it in my mind and when I walk the usual route home there is no place along the drainage ditch where I can say, "There. The tunnel started there and ran to, oh, say, here." I looked for the two slits of light to no success, though they did look rather overgrown from below, so they may just be well concealed.

Yesterday I brought a small flashlight to the office, but forgot to bring it with me on the way home so I didn't go exploring. Today I made sure to put the flashlight in my pocket as I walked out. It is starting to get chilly here. Nothing compared to my Wisconsin winters, but definitely hand-in-pocket weather. I crossed the street (looked both ways, though it is a one way section of road) where I had seen the squirrel run across last week and went down the ditch. The creek bed was a bit more damp, with puddles collecting in places, I assume from the local businesses watering their lawns since it hasn't rained in a while, so I walked a little bit up the slope.

Walking for a little bit I thought I knew exactly where I was. The sky overhead was the uniform grey of a chilly November, what Paul Simon called a hazy shade of winter, and dimmer even than usual as the sun set somewhere behind the uniform blanket of rain-less clouds. These were the sort of clouds that were basically fog in the sky, the sort we get so often here in Texas that pass by as quickly as they can looking for any excuse to avoid raining on us, so insubstantial that they will burn off if the day gets too warm. These clouds exist to contrast against the other sort of cloud we get here, the sort where you can see the top of the cloud on the horizon and then a few hours later see the bottom and each billowing form, black as the oil patch, rolls up ionizing the air even before it starts with the lightning and every aspect of its demeanor says that this cloud, and all twelve of its individually distinguishable cloud buddies filling the mighty Texas sky, will rain the fuck out of you so kneel down, bend over, assume the position, and pray that this storm washes someone else's car into the river, because you don't want it to be you but that hellish cloud will be thrice damned before it passes by without some form of severe property damage. No, it wasn't that sort of cloud.

I looked forward down the walls of the ditch, not quite able to remember and visual cues that had previously preceded the archway. I guess I stopped really paying attention at some point (it happens), since if I hadn't ducked under a low hanging tree branch I would not have noticed that I had just passed it. So I stop, feeling a right fool, and pull out my pocket flashlight.

Under the slight blue of the LED flashlight, the interior of the archway emits an otherworldly glow, but then again, so does my cat when I shine this light on him, so I ascribe it to the interplay of the yellow sandstone with the blueish hue. Also contributing is the fact that not only is the interior of the tunnel perfectly smooth, it is also perfectly clean. The stone itself is unblemished, and the striations run all the way from here to the far door, wrap around the door and end up back at the other side of the archway. It is almost enough to make me assume I am ignorant of the local geology, but I have too many oil men in my family to get away with that, so it just leaves me unsettled.

I duck down to fit into the archway and walk down to the door. Distances are very strange in the corridor. The far wall is clearly flat, with the cracks of a perfectly smooth door visible, but no angles can be seen anywhere. Even when I get up there and run my fingers along the wall, it doesn't crease anywhere, and the curvature is so subtle that I cannot tell where it is the side wall and where it is the end wall, I just get surprised when my finger is going left to right instead of back to front. A neat little trick from whoever carved out this great hunk of rock.

The latch is the only thing out of place, and looks as if it was added long ago, but still long after the tunnel had been dug out. It is metal, cheap, shiny where it isn't rusted and the bolts have left a ring of orange stain around the cleanly drilled bolt-holes. It is a simple mechanism, a flat latch on a hinge that snaps into place against a similar metal piece on the door frame. I pull it open and am rewarded with the satisfying snap, followed by the less rewarding shriek of rusted hinge.

I pull open the door and shine in the light. It falls on a seated man. The man is doing a passable impression of a homeless person, from the unkempt beard to the malodorous feet. It is not beyond possibility that he was, in fact, a jan-u-wine homeless man, afflicted with a full catalogue of ailments and maladies. I don't remember our exact words, but what I have below captures most of what was said.

"Well, howdy. Come for a visit, have you?" He gave a cough. Each word sounded a bit worse than the last, as if he had a sore throat yet was determined to fight through it.

I couldn't say anything for a bit. Here I was standing there in the doorway, head and shoulders hunched over beneath the low hallway ceiling, having unexpectedly trespassed upon someone's residence. I hope dearly that any nervous grinning did not appear shit-faced. Eventually I got out an "uhh.." and almost made with the apology, but he picked up the thread.

"Sit, now. It isn't like you are supposed to not be here." This was news to me, but, after a bit of timorous hesitation I decided to believe him. I stepped in and unslouched a little, though I kept a bit of bend to mark that I was not completely shameless.

I stood there, two steps in front of the slightly ajar stone door.

"That is pretty bright" he said after another awkward silence.

"Huh?"

"That" he said, nodding at the flashlight I had shining right into his eyes. I hadn't really noticed because he had been sitting so impassively, also because I am a huge dickbag who doesn't consider the impact of my actions on other people. I waved it away, casting the harsh blue light on the peculiar designs engraved into the walls. No particular design seemed familiar, but in that chaotic jumble it would have perhaps been more noticeable if something had. I continued waving the light, not quite sure where a socially appropriate place to shine it might be, and eventually settled on the floor in front of my feet. The dim, scattered daylight slipped in through the two slits in the ceiling, illuminating the man as a detailed shadow. I stood some more.

"Sit." he said again, putting an arm out. I looked around again. The two cabinets seemed a bit fancy to be sat upon, and he wasn't really gesturing at either of them. The easel still rested in the corner, twinging my guilt nerves with its vacancy. An easel is not a thing to sit on.

The man must have seen my confusion, or was perhaps reacting to my hesitation. "Oh, of course," he said as he stood up.

He then did the damnedest thing. He stepped away from his chair, a heavy wooden frame of a type to match the rest of the room, though I did not recall seeing it in my previous trip. He then took three or four steps forward, turned to face the chair, and sat.

He did not sit on the floor, he sat as though there were a chair identical in form to the one he was offering to me. But, to my eye at least, there was no chair. There was no anything. It looked to me that he did not so much sit as make a sitting gesture, and yet at various points he would lean back in impossible moves as if supported by the high back of a heavy chair. Sitting here now in front of a computer I cannot help but give even odds to the proposition that he was mad beyond belief or that he was royally fucking with me.

I took his former seat, and repeated my chorus of umms. They broke through into an explanation of what I had done previously, explaining to him that I had stumbled upon the archway and explored the previous week and had thought it to be uninhabited and absolutely did not touch anything and was very sorry to intrude and this took about ten times more words than it needed to, but the man stood there- sat there in his imaginary chair- and listened with the patience of a man utterly convinced that no matter how trivial my tale, he had nothing in the world better to be doing.

When I finished, or rather when the narrative and apologies had run out and I was left with some extra vague umming, he spoke. "The stag hasn't brought anyone by in quite some time."

I let that remark hang for a moment, but the man seemed as immune to awkward as I am hyper-sensitive to it.

"Let's sacrifice a goat." Those, I swear to the high holy heavens, were his exact words.

"I haven't got a goat." I didn't think, the words just happened, and I swear again that it was those words in that order.

"Oh," he said, as disappointed as his overall flat affect would allow. "I have one around here that I keep for special occasions." He stood up and began to walk off.

Now, obviously there is nothing suspicious about raising goats, but in the context it was particularly creepy.

"I don't want to cause any trouble."

"Oh, no trouble at all."

"But you said for special occasions. This isn't a very special occasion."

"Hmm." He sat back down in his non-existent chair. "I suppose I might have a more bigger need soon."

I tried to lighten the mood a bit by saying that I probably wouldn't know how to sacrifice a goat anyway.

"Oh, new to this, are you? Let me..." He stood again and walked over to the cabinet closer to the easel and opened a thin wooden door. His shadowy form blocked my vision of the contents, but he pulled out a brightly colored brochure that looked like something a family-oriented museum would hand out.

Except it had a time series of photos of the ritualistic dismemberment of a goat on the inside. In the first few frames, up to and including the one where a pair of ungloved, bloody hands are pulling out intestines, the goat is clearly alive.

I took the brochure from him, I remember that much. I then left and remember nothing at all of the mechanical walk back until I threw that brochure into the trash can at the bus stop.

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