Benjamin Harnett

The Stick Man

 

   You remember the stick man, don’t you, Husband?
   No?
   You said, “Christ, is this North Korea?” when we drove past him trudging up the road, in old dirty sweats, a basket of sticks on his back.
   It was the first time I took you “home” to visit.
   “Unkind,” I said.
   “To North Korea,” you said.
   I have to admit your attitude did improve over the years. Maybe it was just the shock—the sudden immersion in the country from the city, but I have always wondered if that remark—and others—showed your core, something of spite for the world and the people in it.
   I have been fighting spite lately.
   I get it.
   Nothing of spite in the stick man, Husband, he always had a smile, and so many sticks. You wouldn’t think the trees had that many to give. A full basket on every trip.
   There was a house of course, the stick man’s house, an eighth of an acre, a fence, a little chimney, some Greek-revival details, rotting fascia, sills, and soffits, a sagging stone foundation, glass whose panes were thin at the top and swollen at the bottom—not because the glass flows down, but just because of the way the panes were made back then.
   I am saying this not to correct you, but to remind myself.
   There was a house. It was in there, somewhere.
   The land the house and all had been relentlessly stacked-over with sticks, the collection of so many years—they leaned tall and straight, were crossed, and crossed again. The thin, living trees in the yard had been boxed in with sticks, the fence was one tepee after another, smaller sticks had been stacked up every face of them, some turned outward held sticks in their crooks, other crooks had been sawn off, the whole thing was rich with pattern.
   Every stack and every piling, every chimney, every heap ended in thin, twiggy ends, or was stuffed with them, which feathered into the sky like bristles, or hair.
   The windows, in the right light, what patches of them could be seen, were either lined with straight sticks like rods or stacked with the cut crook-ends, like so many pale eyes, or so many dozens of eggs.
   Nothing ever moved there at the stick man’s, Husband.
   The stick-wood was dry and brown, or rough grey, or denuded of bark and staining green—with moss? There were so many sticks, even before then, that you couldn’t tell when sticks were added: Infinity plus one is still infinity.
   Did you turn your head as we drove past, from time to time? It always looked the same, but from photographs, you see the wholesale transformation. The entire edifice slowly churned, making space for new sticks, picking up new patterns, as though one way was going in and another out of fashion.
   I’m doing it now, pushing the stick man’s agency away—because it seems impossible to connect the strange stick house, some place of wild nature, to a man, even one as strange as him.
   If this were somewhere else, if it were out there in the desert, it might be a folk art project. He would be visited by sculptors, by pilgrims, even film crews. 
   Here, on a little green hill in a maze of little green hills, on old earth sloping hilly down to the Mohawk river bed, in a little village that rotted away from its last prominence all the way back the early 1800s, its houses slapped never-endingly with white paint and green paint so that almost all the thickness left was paint, their insides turning into dirt, their dusty floors rolling away into shallow basements, stacks of National Geographic and whole chickens pickled in old jars, here he is just the stick man, and his stick house might be a thicket, or an old junk yard or both.
   A few jersey cows behind some fence, a little bridge, a general store with a big cooler with ice pops. Dampness from the stream and the springs which gurgle up everywhere from the limestone, and are clogged with leaves.
   It is all as unlovely as me, isn’t it?
   “Fucking nowhere,” you said. True.
   Damp with mildew. Dark. Crooked.    
   Sometime lately, I began to think of those sticks as memories. We all collect and build them into our homes. Wrap them around us. Protection. It made the feeling, as I passed the house, sometimes, less overwhelming, less claustrophobic.    
   Where did he sleep? Were there channels through the sticks inside the house for him to go?
   It is all so much like—have you ever seen the larvae of the caddisfly moving on the bottom of a cool stream? At first it is as though the very dead sticks and twigs and bits of cut up leaf are living, have been conjured up, golem-like. Eerie.
   I have a clear memory, of me and my family one summer on a walk. All gaping, slack-jawed, at the stream bottom. These larvae had cemented twigs all around themselves, each one different, like shells, like houses. They had bits of sand and tiny pebbles worked into the spaces in them, like mortar, and they were moving while the sun and shadow played over them.
   There is instinct-only in their armor-making, though we could not differentiate it from a kind of insect architecture, with its Vitruvian rules of symmetry, shape, and form. We found them, that afternoon, in our Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife. Nothing in the illustration or description—prosaic, muted—matched our real-life encounter.
   The reality was magic.


#  

 
   “It’s not magic,” I say to Katie.
   “Oh, it is,” she says, “it is,” pushing the box overflowing with crumpled receipts into my hands.
   I wonder if you were fucking her. Were you? She is pretty fit, still.
   Better I don’t know.
   “Come back in two weeks,” I say.
   They come crawling to me, starting about now, and then more frequently as the middle of April and “Tax Deadline!” approaches.
   They are each different, but all absolutely the same. Herman and Sally come together. They are cradling their cardboard box full of receipts, she holds one side, he has the other. They put it down in front of me with combined contempt and shame. For it, for me, for themselves.    
   I roll my eyes as though to say, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” but we all know what: I am supposed to make sense of it. Order it into some reasonably accurate picture of their small business, their life. Other couples will come. Estranged business partners. Sole survivors. Lone gunmen. Some I will have to cajole, others berate. Some come with binders, and subtotals, artificial order. Invariably their math will be wrong.
   I am sure our math, Husband, was wrong.
   Marian brings a bundt cake with her receipts. It is chocolate pound, drizzled with sugar icing. I hate her for it. I will eat two slices, one slice too many, then throw it out before I eat the rest. A waste. Not even tax deductible. But I must be generous. It is the thought that counts. The cake is by way of apology, really. Marian is saying sorry, sorry I could not keep track of and organize my own life, that I could not tell my own story.
   It’s okay, I want to tell them. It’s fine. No one should do their own taxes. I shouldn’t do mine. It’s enough to grab on to the bits and pieces of a life as they go by. Hands out, balling the papers in your fists, even if they fade. Even if they are dropped in no recognizable arrangement into a great big box with “2019” scrawled on its side. Maybe you have crossed-out “2018.” Or maybe you have some credit card statements (8 out of 12, say) and we work together to mock up some reasonable scaffolding for the rest.
   I just smile, and eat the too-sugary cake.
   Can I just say, sometimes I can’t even see their features. My friends’ and neighbors’. Just emptiness, and fangs. They come at me like spiders, their spindly arms and legs thick about the body of their life. I should follow my own advice.
   Why am I telling you all this, Husband? Why?
   Yesterday I was putting away some silverware. I have already forgotten where you kept certain knives and forks—you were so particular about the one with the wooden handle, and the different sized spoons. I looked for a long time into the drawer, trying to remember. Nothing came.
   Now in my busy time, there is less room to feel. I am down in my office, taking one box, one busted up diorama of a business, a business slowly sliding down. They are all trending to insolvency. It’s a question only of keeping that point of failure far enough away. “As long as I die first,” they will say.
   One is a family-owned drug store, they are just minutes away from a Rite-Aid.
   The difference is on the shelves, I mean the dust, the bareness. They have exactly one of everything. Each item has space and air around it. Once upon a time their shelves, bare as they are, would have been an extravagance. Imagine, twelve different pain medicines, thirteen kinds of greeting card, three brands of toilet-paper. The chain store, by contrast, is overflowing, nauseating, psychedelic. Stuffed so that the shelves are bulging with “it” where it is every variety, every color, every possibility. Every bin is overflowing. This is affluence, this is fat, but this is stability. It is comfort.
   I can’t shop at the family drug store. Every visit, their eyes follow me around the store, hollow, imploring me to pick this or that. It’s too unnerving, too stressful. Every purchase is an act of mercy and of horror, how can they afford to restock? I feel like a purchase is stealing, that every nail clipper taken from its display means everything else must shift a little to take its place. Like a party slowly dying as people French exit out the back. Like a slowly expanding gas.    
   I think, sometimes, that this is the sickness that spread between us. I would have left you, Husband, if only you hadn’t died.
   Ah, well, but at Rite-Aid, I am anonymous, and I am happy.
   I have taken to wrapping myself in a shawl to work. Sometimes I find I have a blanket, too. And that old, fuzzy cardigan you tried to throw away. I am like the larvae, bedecked, protected, at the bottom of the stream. In the shallow valley that had been a goat farm, now overgrown, some willows, in the shoaling end of the deep pool, above the rounded stones, below the minnows.


#

   
  You know, Husband, I saw him once—far, far from his natural habitat—or thought I did, the stick man, but without his sticks.
   It was in Grand Central Terminal. In the great hall with the clock, and the constellations, and the enormous flag. I used to travel there, before we met, for work.
   He had a tweed suit, with a vest, and a wool bow-tie. His brown shoes were shined. He had a lawyer’s case, and his starched white shirt was bright and expensive. His short cropped hair was white; his face had that thick, lazy stubble the old get. How blue his eyes were.
   Could it have been him? Maybe living out a second life. You know about those things, don’t you? I imagined him living all week in a pied-à-terre, working at some fancy law office, then heading far upstate for the weekend, serving out some strange penance, on hot Sunday mornings trawling the county roads in worn-out sweats, carrying broken sticks to the ancestral home.
   It was just a look-a-like, a doppelganger, or a long lost twin.
   As separate from the stick man as our happy life had, from us, been.
   Who is the stick man?
   He was Edna’s second cousin, he had lived in that old house with his aunt all his life. Until she passed. He was normal once, I guess. Used to take long walks with his aunt and a dog, a German shepherd. Kept two walking sticks, long, straight, with natural handles. When she died, she willed enough to pay the property tax, a neighbor wrote the checks. He lived on canned goods, and that’s about when, they say, he started adding sticks.
   I couldn’t get any more, when I asked, than “Queer sort,” and “Troubled.” No one seemed to want to understand. Or think it needed understanding.
   Well, everyone needs an occupation.
   Caddisfly larva after a long period of happiness in their stick-homes at the bottom of the stream emerge, struggling, from the water with moth-like wings, for a brief flight, mating, death.
   Why couldn’t they stay, safe in their silk cases, armored with twigs and bits of stone, chewing happily the old decaying leaf matter in the water, behind submerged tree roots and old glacier stones. 
   At once camouflage and armor, nest, and mobile-home: how brutal to leave to it, to have your guts grow wings.


#


   What I meant to tell you, what I have been trying to say, is that the stick man’s house burned. Of course it did. The fire was four-stories high. Towering. You saw it like a beacon. Orange, red edged, unwavering.
   The house appeared, at last, black in the deepest heart of the fire, a coal, glowing red. The fire trucks ran their hoses into the stream. The roar and crackle, the sudden hiss, the billowing steam, the smoke rising steadily. The stars were dimmed by it. It took eight hours to stop. There was nothing left but piles of ash, and here and there long, still-standing rods of it, like the ribs of enormous fish, until something would touch it, or a breeze, they fell into oblivion one by one.
   Husband, what happened to our stick man? The fire was the necessary end of such a pupa, of dry tinder gathered, stacked, arrayed: This hecatomb his instinct made.
   I am telling you this I realize because I want you to understand
    I have been gathering my cocoon around me these years. I have been setting myself up to burn.
   They walked the scene of the fire, Katie’s husband is a volunteer, when it had finally cooled. Poked at it, raked through it. Didn’t find so much as a tooth, or a scorched bone.
   For all I know, the stick man is back in Manhattan, writing wills.


#

   
   There’s a knock.
   The first of my clients come to take in what I have made for them out of their past year.
   It’s probably Marian.
   For some of them I will scratch in my signature on the “paid” tax preparer line. I made this, I’ll say, and stand by it. For the others we don’t even discuss it. They know that if it comes to that, there’s little chance their wings will fly. I just do my best, I have erected my wall of twigs. They embrace it, they thank me, but we both know it’s not brick. The wolf won’t come because, for most of us, the wolf already has, he’s there, eating with us every night.
   When you were here, I could have been a wall for them, could have protected them from the wolf. I could have been a wall for myself.
   “You depend on me too much,” you said.


#


   I follow Marian out, having surrendered her tax forms, and taken a check and another too-rich cake.
   We go out to the porch—she walks backward down the steps, thanking me, then turns to her empty Astro van. It had been for her six children, but they’ve flown the coop. The air is cool, there is a low mist, the far hills a kind of lavender, soothing.
   I push out my breath. I flex my wings, Husband. Don’t insect wings have something to do with lungs? They have the dampness of the newly formed. I work out this sensation of flight.
   Now I am up over the power lines, with some birds.
   One will take me into its beak, I suppose.
   But I’ll have gotten up off the earth before this all is done.

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