The man who isn’t really a man wakes up in the hospital bed. The light is so bright that at first he cannot see.
The sheets fold over him like the reflexive fingers of a hand.
An old movie plays on the tiny TV, silently.
He cannot hear it, and thinks perhaps the body he has slid into, like a vacant suit of clothes, is deaf. Perhaps it cannot speak.
He makes a humming sound in his throat that creaks like a door long unopened. He doesn’t say anything because he can’t remember any words.
There are pictures. He sees pictures projected in his mind, a magic lantern show. He cannot describe their meanings. He cannot form words in his mind.
The whole world he has known is a silent picture show, and it has passed him by, leaving him here like this. He feels the way he is swaddled in the sheets like the newly born or the long dead. Is he both? He thinks, in his picture thoughts, that he might be both. Surely it is possible in this world to be both things at once.
Who are you? they ask him. We don’t know who you are.
He forms a thought in his mind of a man. A man with a face and a certain way of smiling. He thinks it might be who is. Who he is has not made much of an impression on him yet. There is no name. A name cannot be pictured.
He doesn’t know, they say. He doesn’t know who he is.
You will have to choose a name, they tell him. Choose a name, and that is what we will call you. They have a sense that he understands things, even if he doesn’t speak. They give him a book with names in it. They give him a dictionary. He reads the cover and he knows what to call it. He knows his first word. He can read. Reading is remembering out loud what he remembers inside. As he reads, the words come back to him. Whatever he reads, he remembers.
He knows the word noun. He knows that is what he is, more or less. He is a person, place, or thing. He does not know which. He thinks perhaps he will be what he does. A teacher teaches. He seems to recall what that means. A mother mothers. These are nouns and verbs. What you are is what you do. You just have to choose what you will do. He watches people. He tries to understand what they are by what they do. A lot of people are walkers. This seems good to him. He thinks he might become a walker, when they unravel him from his bed. He seems to remember walking. He is weak. For now, he might be a faller. A stumbler. A breaker of bones. He will stay where he is until walking is more likely.
They lean over him. They talk to him. You have been here a long time, they tell him. We don’t know who you are. Have you chosen a name? We don’t know what to call you.
He still doesn’t understand names. They are not verbs. They have no meaning. He does not think he would like to have a name. He shakes his head. He reads the names in the book, which is like a dictionary, but the definitions are meaningless. Their meanings are invented. He does not wish to be called something meaningless or invented. He wants to be called what he is. He does not know what he is. He only knows what he does, which isn’t much at the moment. He reads. He is at the moment a reader. Perhaps he always will be. He discards the book of names. He reads the book of words. Every word he reads comes back to him like lost birds, one by one. They roost in his mind, cooing and clucking and building soft nests for themselves. They procreate. Every day there are more words, more pictures to go with them. He doesn’t know if they are his own pictures, or the pictures that belong to the man he is living in. he has moved into a mind partially furnished with things left behind. Old clothes and bags of litter and droppings, tattered rugs and broken cups that must be mended or put away where he cannot see them. These are not mine, he thinks. But I will take care of them, for awhile. As long as I am here, I can make myself useful.
He looks for a word that he can inhabit. A word that describes what he is when he is not doing anything in particular. He reads for hours. He tries words on, one by one, like mismatched pairs of shoes he must somehow rely on to get him where he is going, even though he isn’t going anywhere. They ask him every day what his name is. There is a woman who sits by the side of the bed and reads the names and their unmeanings to him in a droning voice that puts him to sleep, where he dreams of a world where everyone has the meanings of their names pinned to them. People meet other people who share their name, and they are puzzled and afraid. How can we both mean the same thing? they ask. Does this mean we are the same person? He watches them. He does not have a meaning pinned to his jacket. He knows he does not really have a jacket, and this is how he knows he is dreaming.
Ghost, he says.
That is not a name, they tell him.
Remember, he says.
That is even less of a name, they say.
That is the worst one yet, they sigh, and open the book of names at the beginning.
They will read the names to him, he knows, until he chooses one. And whatever he chooses, he understands, they will believe is somehow his real name. They think his mind just needs to be tricked. He digs around in the mind that is not his. He digs through the drawers and bags of litter. He reads the labels of all the half-empty bottles lying around, and they all say the same word: Jonathan.
Jonathan, he says. It is the first name he has said out loud. It is dry, dusty. It creaks like a door that has not been opened in a long time.
They beam at him. Jonathan, they say, slowly. Is that it? Is that your name?
He hesitates, and then nods. It is the name of the body he is living in. Perhaps that is all a name is, after all. Flesh is what is named, not what lives inside it. He allows them to call him Jonathan. He still searches for the right word. He likes the words ghost, remember, sojourn. He thinks they are good names. They are what he is, or does, or will be, or will do. He feels the truth of this. They can call him by the dead boy’s name if it makes them happy. It is a gift he gives them, this relief of having affixed the appropriate label, like a tag on the toe of the dead. He has seen them wheeled past, shrouded in the same white sheets in which he makes his living bed. How can they tell? he wonders. How do they know the difference between the sleeping and the dead? They tell him he has been sleeping a long time. They didn’t think he would wake up. If you don’t wake up, aren’t you dead? He adds the word dead to the list of what he is or may be.
Eventually, he walks. They teach him how. He has pictures in his mind of walking, of someone walking. Remembering walking feels like being carried, but it is much harder in practise. His legs don’t know how. They must learn again. It hurts. He shuffles like an old one. He sees the old ones. He must be an old one, though he doesn’t know for sure. His hands shake, and are pale. His fingernails are long and slightly bluish. His feet are like gravestones he cannot lift but must push along the ground. He gets stronger so slowly he doesn’t notice how much stronger he is. You’re getting so much better, they say. We had almost given up on you. They do not say what happens to the ones they do give up on. He picks his feet up, and finds they are light as loaves of bread. Light as air. He walks. He is a walker. He adds it to his list.
People talk to him. They tell him things he doesn’t understand, but he listens. They like the way he looks at them, the way he doesn’t say anything to contradict them. They hate to be contradicted. He would hate to be contradicted, maybe, if he had anything of his own to say. He makes rounds, like he sees the doctors and nurses do, but he doesn’t put those words on his list. He puts listener. He files away all the words they say in a separate drawer in his mind. These are not his. These are not Jonathan’s. These are in a drawer labelled Other.
When I was a boy, a man tells him. I used to run away from school. I’d tell the bus driver my horse got out, and I needed to go get him or I’d get tanned. Of course, the horse was trained to follow me, see. He knew which fields to cross, and where to wait. I’d get off the bus and pretend to scold him while the bus driver watched. I had my lunch and a pack of Buckinghams rolled up in my sleeve. I’d climb the fence and wait for the bus to go on, then I’d get on my horse and we’d go up into the mountains. I’m going to die soon, the man tells him. When I die, that horse is gonna be waiting on me to get off the bus.
When my baby was born, a girl tells him, I turned my face away and didn’t look at her. They took her away, and brought her back later. How do I know she’s the same one? She could be anybody’s baby now. I would never know the difference. How am I supposed to know the difference? I should have looked at her. Maybe she didn’t look at me either. Now neither of us will ever know for sure.
There is a boy with bandaged wrists who doesn’t tell him anything. He likes to sit beside this boy. They look at each other for hours, saying nothing. The boy’s eyes say, I know what you are. Take me with you when you go.
They tell him he needs one more name before they can let him go. He needs a surname. They don’t say why, and he doesn’t ask. He is very patient with them, the way they are patient with him, only in different ways.
Ghost, he says, again.
They explain, with patient voices, again. Ghost isn’t a name. It isn’t even a real thing. There is no such thing. You can’t be Jonathan Ghost. You have enough problems, they tell him. There are enough problems in the world without a name like that. No, they say. No, no, no. You don’t know what you are asking.
Yes, he says, in a voice that does not creak. A voice that is a door shutting closed again. A door he locks shut.
They don’t argue again. They write it down on his label. They take his picture, and send it away. When the label comes back, he sees Jonathan for the first time. He sees himself, looking out from Jonathan’s eyes. Jonathan, he sees, is a young man. A very young man, who looks worried. His hair is very soft and falls over his face. His eyes are not his eyes. They have been replaced. Perhaps that is what he is so worried about. Perhaps he is worried because he can no longer see, the way the man who lives inside him now could no longer speak, and can now only speak in Jonathan’s left behind voice.
He looks at Jonathan in the mirror. Stop worrying, he tells him. You aren’t here anymore. I’ll take your name with me. I’ll carry it wherever I go, in memory of you. There is nothing for you to worry about. It’s up to me to choose now, and I don’t want to be a worrier. It isn’t on my list.
The man who is dying, whose horse is waiting for him, beckons Jonathan Ghost into his room. It’s time for me to go, he says. They’ll let you go soon, too. Have you thought about what you’re going to do about clothes? You can’t go around like that. It ain’t decent, with your ass hanging out for everyone to see. A man needs a little dignity. Me, I don’t need nothing no more. I got nothing. I never had nothing. But I got me a suit. Every man needs him a suit, and a hat, a pair of shoes. I had me this suit so long, I thought it was me. But it ain’t. I’m nothing no more. You take it. You wear it. Take that hat and them shoes. I’m old. It’s out of fashion, maybe. But a good suit is never much out of fashion. I’m going now. You wear that suit and maybe, when I’m riding around, looking back down here, I’ll recognize you and give you a wave and a holler. I’ll save you a place at the table. We’ll all of us be naked there, but it won’t matter. Take that suit and be happy, boy. Take care of your suit and it will take care of you.
He takes off his gown and folds it. He puts on the suit, with the dead man’s eyes staring out. He puts on the suit that fits him like a glove. Trousers, vest, shirt and tie. The jacket a little loose in the shoulders, a little long in the cuff. His fingers stumble, remembering the way of ties. Jonathan’s hair is long. He smoothes it back. The hat at a jaunty angle. He likes things to be jaunty, likes the word. Jaunty hat pulled low over worried eyebrows he can’t seem to control. Some things are not his, he knows. Not his to control. He finds change jangling in the pockets. He takes out two big shining coins, old coins, with weight. He places them over the dead man’s eyes. There is a boatman, he has heard. He has heard that everyone needs coins to pay the boatman when they go. He keeps coins for Jonathan’s eyes, for when he finds them, and puts them back.
We’re going to have to let you go, they tell him, sadly it seems to him. We aren’t sure what to do with you. There is nothing wrong with you, strictly speaking. There is nothing technical wrong with you, but you are of no use. We don’t know how you will live. We are going to give you money so that you will go away and find some way to live. We are sorry, but that is the way it is.
I have money, he says, showing them the coins. But I can’t spend it yet.
They laugh. He lets them laugh at him. A gift he gives them. You need more than that, they tell him. They give him his label, and a book, with his name and the address of his bank. The money will go to this bank, they tell him. Just show them this book and your label and they will give some to you. Find a place to live, Mr. Ghost. Jonathan. Call this number if you have trouble. They give him a card with numbers on it. He puts it carefully in his pocket, the other pocket, not the one with the coins. He puts his label there too, and the book. He has his dictionary under his arm.
Goodbye, they say.
Goodbye. He tips his hat, the angle even jauntier now.
He walks out into the street. The brightness blinds him, and he knows how Jonathan feels. He hears his names being called as someone rushes out to take him by the shoulder. Here, take this, one of them says. She thrusts an umbrella into his hand. It rains in this city. I don’t know if you remember. It rains hard, all year long. A hat is not enough.
No, he agrees. A man needs a suit, too. And shoes.
And an umbrella, she tells him.
He takes it. He wonders why the man with the horse left that part out. Thank you, he tells her. I didn’t know. She smiles, like the woman he saw on the TV when he woke up. The bright blond halo of her hair and her wide clear eyes. He will remember her.
The city jangles like coins in the pocket of night. He walks all day and then night came. He walks to the bank and gives them the book. They give him crisp strips of paper, green and red and purple, with people’s faces on them. This is money, he thinks. Money is one of those things that is not what it is. It is more than paper. You don’t write on it. You don’t send it in the mail with a stamp. You protect it like it’s children. He remembers money. He hoped it will be gone by now. Replaced by something better. He sees people with plastic cards. It doesn’t seem any better. Plastic is not what money is either. Maybe there is nothing that can be what money is. He remembers the word symbol. Money is a symbol of what you can buy with it, he tells himself. He doesn’t want to buy anything. He wanders the streets. He gives the bright paper to people who ask for it until it is all gone, except for the change in the horse man’s pocket. He doesn’t feel any different without it.
Night jangles and jingles. There are people who never go home, people like him. Find a place to live, they said. But what if home is nowhere? He doesn’t know where he should live. There are people who live in doorways, he sees, People who live on the steps of libraries, or propped up against trees. Underneath overpasses he passes over. He could go and live with them, perhaps. People seem to like to live together, in one jumbled mass of arms and legs, hooting and shouting. Some of them sing songs, but they are actually shouting. Some of them try to shout, but it comes out like a song they are singing. People do the opposite of what they mean to do. How does it happen, he wonders? What if, instead of walking, he were to float instead, or drown?
He read the whole dictionary while he was learning to walk again. He knows all the words now. He remembers them. He knows they are his own memories, his own understandings of words, because Jonathan only remembers one word, and that is Jonathan. It’s easy to keep straight. But the pictures are a different story. He has to keep sorting through them, putting them in the right drawer, on the right shelf. The mind is not something that has a concrete definition. He thinks of it as a library, of a place that needs concise ordering. Card catalogues and decimals. But those things fail, of course. They are only a guideline. If everything is put away wrong, there is no helping you find what you need. You have to just stumble upon it while looking for something else. To remember, the best thing you can do is make yourself forget.
Night is a garment that unzips, spilling flesh. The flesh of the people who don’t hide themselves the way people of the day do. There are day people and night people. He doesn’t know which he is. He thinks he is both. It seems right that he is not one thing or the other. He is everything and nothing, all the time. His shoes are slightly too big, and flap about, reminding him that they are not his yet. He likes the way they clatter on the pavement like hooves. It helps him to remember the man who gave them to him. It reminds him that nothing he has is his, except the words. It is all a borrowed suit, really. The world. This body with the sad eyebrows, the worried mouth like a soft animal. Borrowed time, even. Time another thing he does not understand. Perhaps he will. He is here to understand, he thinks. That is part of what he must try to do, even if it is a failure.
He remembers sliding in. Sliding into Jonathan the way he slid into this suit, a reversed birth. He had hovered for a long time, to make sure no one was in there. There was no one in there. He made sure. What am I? he thinks. What is the word for something that slides in? Something that has nowhere of its own to live? He finds the word. Squatter. He adds it to his list. There is something shameful about what he has done, he knows. But he is not ashamed. No one was using it, this body. Someone just left it there, left it behind, useless. Waste is ugly, especially if what is wasted was once beautiful. You are not useful, they told him. Perhaps he is not. But now, Jonathan is. He has made him of use again. That is a good thing. He cannot put it on the list because it is not to do with him.
The night is discordant. He follows its progress. The streetlights beckon him. They go nowhere. He follows them. There are dark birds at night, eating the refuse of the day. He likes the way they are so bold, the way they, too, walk with jutting strides. He sees some people kick at them, squabbling like siblings who each want what is their right. People are hungry, he sees. He is hungry, but it is pleasant to be hungry. He hasn’t been hungry in years. The teeth gnawing inside Jonathan, the frenetic pumping of his heart, the expansion and contraction of his lungs—all of these things are felt and relished. They are discarded sensations. They are detritus. He has snatched them up and made them his own. Like the birds, he is a scavenger. The list is getting long. It grows and grows. He is so many things, and still he does not know what he is. He wonders if Jonathan knew. If he knew and could not stand it. There are things people cannot stand for, so they fold and fall and don’t get up again. He has seen it. He has felt something. Pity, he thinks. Something like that. But something more than that. Something wordless, like a rage inside him that cannot speak its own name.
A peculiar thing happens. Whenever he walks past telephones in booths, or on the counters of restaurants and stores, they ring. At first he does not notice this. The entire world rings, constantly. People talk on phones but not to each other. It is not what he thinks of as normal, but he is getting used to it. After awhile, he starts to notice that phones that are obviously broken ring when he walks past them—the broken ones are even louder than the ones that are not broken. This is not how it is supposed to work. It is peculiar. He feels a stab of fear in Jonathan’s stomach. He worries that he is not actually here, like in a dream when you cannot turn off a light, and you know you are really alive somewhere else. He knows he is not dreaming, but he knows he is not strictly speaking here, either.
A phone rings on a deserted corner. He allows it to ring sixty-three times, once for every day he has been here. He answers midway through the sixty-third ring.
Hello, he says.
No one answers, but he knows something is there. It isn’t that he hears It breathing so much as he hears It not-breathing.
What is your name? he asks It, even though he understands somehow that like him It does not have a name.
I’m not hurting anything, he says, with dignity. No one was using him. He was just lying there.
It says nothing. He waits. It doesn’t say a word.
Can I stay? he asks It. Please. Let me stay for a little while.
He hears, very softly, very tenderly, the phone being set down in its cradle on the other end. He leaves the receiver dangling. He walks away. The dial tone sings out, a toneless tone in the quiet night.
There are things he likes and things he doesn’t like. There are places he loves and places he hates. He goes everywhere, looks at everything, even if he doesn’t like it. What you look at, what you make it your business to see, has nothing to do with good or bad. You have to see both, to know the difference. He likes to sit down when he is tired in places where people go to escape parts of life they don’t like. He rests in churches and cinemas. He watches every movie, paying for tickets with the paper he has started keeping for himself, for food and movie tickets and paper cups of coffee, which he either loves passionately, or hates and drinks anyway because waste is not something he understands. He watches any and every movie, sometimes a dozen times. He eats popcorn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Wine Gums, Glossette Raisins, Junior Mints. Some things he can tell were Jonathan’s favourites, because his tongue sings with pleasure deeper than his own. His teeth ache from the press of sugar into their crevices. He is eating all wrong, he knows. He eats whatever he sees. He tries everything, from every culture, which is a word that interests him. He has no culture. He tastes other people’s in the food he eats, the spiced sauces over rice, the gleaming oil leaving halos on his plates and bowls. People watch him when he eats, laughing at the abandon, the serious expression on his face that he knows is there and cannot change, even when he feels joy, when he wants to laugh as people do, with their heads thrown back. Some things he can only do if Jonathan did them. There is only so much he can do with what is left, with the elasticity left in the muscle memory of Jonathan’s body. He doesn’t want to break it. So he does not laugh with a big sound, with his teeth flashing and eyes squinting. He laughs with his mind. With the part of the mind that is his. The part that does not scream the name Jonathan at the top of its voice.
He does not find a place to live. He sleeps on benches, on abandoned sofas in alleyways. It is starting to get cold, and it rains, like the blond girl said it would. He uses his umbrella, but it gets turned inside out. The spokes break. One day he wakes up to find a small dog curled up inside of it, so he leaves it behind. The dog follows him, the way animals often do. He doesn’t get distracted after a few blocks. He keeps following. The dog is small. She limps. He feels sorry for her. She has only three legs. He picks her up. She is so small that when she curls around his arm her back legs barely dangle. She goes to sleep. He has seen people with their dogs. People who live somewhere and people who live nowhere. If people like to live with each other all jumbled together, they like even better to live with animals. He will try it, he decides. He wants to know what animals are like.
He starts to notice that people look at him askance now. A good word. He looks into a shop window, and sees Jonathan as they see him. His hair is greasy. His clothes hang loose, because he walks so much and eats enough for someone who sits still. He has a beard that is not full, but it is scraggled over his chin like a child has drawn on his face with crayon. He sees that he looks bedraggled. A derelict. He does not mind how he looks, but people are starting to notice him in a way that is not useful. He takes the scrap of paper out of his pocket and calls the number. He is afraid to use the telephone, but none of them have rung in that particular way since he answered, and had the one-sided conversation with No One. The phone rings a perfunctory three times before an efficient voice answers it.
Hello, he says. I need help finding a place to live. They said to call this number.
The voice gives him an address, which he has her repeat three times slowly. He has nothing to write with and isn’t sure he knows how to write. He probably does, because presumably Jonathan does, but doesn’t want to chance it. He memorizes the address, and sets out walking with the dog under his arm. She never barks and looks around at everything, shivering in the wind. She is a very small dog. He likes her. He will call her Dog, because that is what she is. He likes things that are what they are.
He walks for a long time, repeating the address to himself in a rhythmic way that becomes a little song. He could take the bus or the train, but he is afraid of things that swallow people and move too fast to get a good look at. He finds the right building and goes in. The voice made flesh tells him to wait in one of the chairs in the waiting area. She looks at Dog and presses her lips together but says nothing. She clearly doesn’t want to start something when she doesn’t know how he will react. He is glad. He keeps Dog on his lap and it does back to sleep. He waits for a long time before they take him into a room that has a desk and a plant and a diploma and a tired looking man in a chair. There is another chair. He and Dog sit in it.
How can we help you? the tired man says.
I need somewhere to live, he tells him.
I see. Do you have some source of income?
He gets the dictionary out and scans through it quickly while the man waits. He starts to look vaguely amused rather than tired. Take your time, he says. I’ve got all day.
He finds the word and reads its meaning. Yes, he says. I have an income. They gave me a book and told me which bank to go to.
Okay, fine. He takes the label they gave him, and looks at the name. Mr…..Ghost?
May I call you Jonathan?
No, thank you. That’s not really my name. It’s just something I’m borrowing for the time being.
Fine, the man says. He smiles. Okay, I will look you up in the system. The man types for a long time, his eyes jumping back and forth across a computer screen. I have you here, Mr….
Fine. Just sit tight, Mr. Ghost, and I will see what I can do for you.
He is given a room in a hotel. Not one of those beautiful hotels like in movies. Well, perhaps it used to be like that, once. A long time ago, when the world was different. He can see the way the world used to be, underneath the way it is now. He can see the New World superimposed over the Old. He likes the Old World better. He feels like maybe he belongs there, though he will take what he can get. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t belong anywhere. The hotel is broken, from the inside out. He isn’t sure how it is still standing. By rights it should laying down on the ground. It should be knocked down and buried, but he’s glad it isn’t. He likes it, the way he likes all derelict things made useful. He climbs the creaking stairs to his floor, because the elevator has been broken, the manager says, since 1979. Dog hops up the stairs one by one on her three legs. She never complains. He likes that about her.
His room is the size of a closet. It has a bed just wide enough for Jonathan’s body, just long enough for Dog to sleep at his feet. There is a hot plate, a card table and chair, and a dresser. There is a row of cupboards above the dresser. He can pace five steps by 12. It is just the right size. He doesn’t take up a lot of space and doesn’t want to. He goes to the Salvation Army down the street to buy mismatched plates and bowls and mugs, two of each, in case he ever has a friend other than Dog, for whom he buys her own china dish. Some pots and pans that he hangs on hooks on the wall. He buys an old percolator. He buys books and a small shelf to put them in. He buys whatever books have titles he likes. Light in August. Skinny Legs and All. Your Mouth is Lovely. He has never read a novel before. Not this time. He has the sense that he has been here before, or that he never left. He has the sense that some things are new to him, and some things are old. The pictures his mind makes keep getting clearer. He remembers a world sort of the same but completely different from the one he lives in now. He buys poetry, but doesn’t understand it. He hears the beauty in it. Some things need only be beautiful to be understood. He is learning this. He is learning what names are for.
The best thing about his room is the window. It is so big, he can see a whole panorama of the city. He can hear the trains at night, howling like animals dying out in the endless flashing darkness. He can sit on the windowsill with Dog, and dangle his legs over the city. He drinks cup after cup of oily black coffee. He smokes cigarettes on occasion, like the people in the old movies he likes. He does the things that feel the most familiar. Cigarettes and coffee. Tatty novels in paper jackets. The dictionary within hand’s reach. He feeds Dog the same things he eats, because she likes what he likes. He wants to give her, always, the things she likes. Another thing he buys is a phonograph. The needle touching down, the record sleeves with pictures of long dead singers, the cold hiss of vinyl in his hands. He loves these things. They don’t cost much, because no one wants them. He loves them more because no one wants them. Like Jonathan’s beautiful body. Like Dog, with her three legs. Love for this world gets stronger every day, every moment, every breath and sigh and word.
He has a small bathroom. There is a tiny sink, a tiny bathtub, everything in miniature, as if orphans are meant to live in the hotel without anyone to bathe them. Jonathan’s body is long and his limbs dangle over the edges of the tub. He loves to hunch into the water with a book, a cigarette, coffee. He doesn’t cut his hair, but he shaves his face every few days with a straight razor he bought in a pawn shop. This too seems a familiar ritual. Have I done this before? He asks himself, every time he does something new. He lays in the bathtub for hours, adding hot water from a kettle, because there is never enough hot water in the hotel pipes to satisfy his insatiable desire to be wet, to be submerged as much as possible in warmth. He reads, or he lays there, inert as a fetus. His soft coil of a penis sways listlessly in the water. He touches it sometimes, the electric jolt of pleasure sending his whole body humming. He pets himself like parts of Jonathan’s body are sleeping animals waiting to be woken by his touch. Like every part of him is a fairytale waiting to be told, strange and uncanny. He thinks about women. He thinks about the women in the movies he likes, how they must be very old ladies, or dead by now. He doesn’t know any women, but he likes them. He likes their shoes and the way they walk, and the way he can smell them coming and going before he sees them. He wonders if it would have been different, if he had slid into a woman’s body instead of into Jonathan’s. He wonders if there is more to gender than what body you are given. He thinks there must be more to it, but he doesn’t know what. He knows what he has, not what he is. He doesn’t know how to make the two into one thing, seamless. Inseparable. He is always able to separate himself from the body. From the skin and hair, the erection, the fluid entering and exiting.
Am I a he? he wonders. Am I anything?
Ghost, he thinks. Sojourn. Remember.
It starts to get colder. The leaves shrivel and fall to earth. The birds move on, except the dark ones. They always stay. The seabirds stay, screaming and circling. At a certain time of day, the black birds fly together across the city, thousands and thousands of them. Crow O’clock, everyone says. As it gets colder, the birds flying east across the city is like some kind of bell tolling, saying—go home. Night descends, pulling a curtain across the sky. It’s time to find a warm place, a light, a cup of warmth. He feels pity for the people who still don’t live anywhere. He wants to give them all the right number to call, but he knows it doesn’t work that way, even if he doesn’t know why.
The phones start to ring again, no matter how fast he and Dog walk past them. He finds a phone in a dumpster that rings when he touches it. It is the loudest phone of all. He brings it home under his jacket, ringing all the way. He puts it on the table and watches it for awhile. He watches it until someone bangs on his door and tells him to Answer the fuckin thing. He answers. He hears the same un-breathing he discerned before.
Hello, he says. What are you?
I just want to know you, he says. I want to know myself. What am I?
He listens to the silence until he falls asleep, the telephone cord wrapped around his fingers , an umbilicus. When morning comes, he will be born again into a light that blinds as it illumines. He will blink. He will see and not see. The world will burn itself anew into his eyes that are and are not his.