an epigraph for part III

All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods

🔥

join man next week for the premiere of PART III of MANWITHOUTATINDER, beginning with journal #21 (in which said man overhears a private conversation)

Journal #20 (in which a raccoon nighttime…)

I’m in the dark. I am the dark. A shadow merges with greater shadow. All around, little bonfires tear away at the shadow that is now a part of me. Pine needles and wood-rust crunch under my feet. A scattering of tents shimmer by flame like some post-apocalyptic dream.

My throat is dry. The space behind my eyes feels airy, empty. Brian and Tommy sit around a fire. Tommy, cross-legged in the dirt, pokes at the fire with a stick. There’s a glassy sheen to his eyes. Beer cans scatter at his feet.

Brian stands to give me a limp hug.

“Happy birthday,” I say to Tommy.

Tommy doesn’t so much as glance at me.

“He’s drunk,” Brian says. “Don’t worry about this drunk.” Brian sounds drunk.

I sit down in the only chair. Brian sits across from Tommy in the dirt. Surrounding us, trees ripple in the orange glow, dark towers shooting up into stars.

There are three tents. One for sleeping, one for supplies, one for dungeon sex. I hear their chains jangle inside. I don’t belong here. Beyond the firelight, something out there moves. Something moves where the firelight can’t reach. Eyes watch us, circle us, wait for our moment of weakness. They don’t realize how weak I already am.

“Mags might be coming,” I say.

Brian looks up. “Oh?”

Tommy glances up, and then back down into the flames. He pokes at a log, shifting it, it crumbles to coal. Sparks spray into the cool night.

“I thought Mags stopped talking to you.”

“She did. Now she’s not.”

“Not not talking to you?”

“Yes.”

A crack and hiss of a beer. The tug of Tommy’s throat pulling it down. I shift in my seat. A can rolls into the trees. From the aluminum glint, I see something paw at it, something nudge it with its nose.

KKKKHHHEEHHHKKKKHHH! A raccoon hiss. A raccoon confrontation. The beer can scuttles out of sight.

My phone shocks my thigh. It’s Mags. Mags is here.

“Mags is here,” I say to everyone.

Mags is here, I say to myself.

Mags is here, I respond.

I find Mags. She’s sitting on a stump near the dirt lot. She plays with her fingernails. Nibbles on them just a little.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” she says.

“You’re here.”

“You didn’t need to come find me.”

“You were lost.”

“I wasn’t lost.”

“You couldn’t find us.”

“I was fine.”

“Okay.”

She follows me to the campsite, her hood up, her hands stuffed in her hoodie pockets.

“Mags is here,” I say to everyone.

Brian stands up, gives her a hug.

Tommy doesn’t so much as look at her.

“I like your hair,” Mags says to Brian.

“Thanks. Thomas cut it.”

An aggressive thumbs up from Tommy.

“Don’t ever let that one cut your hair,” Brian says. Brian points to me, because he means me. “Don’t let him touch you.”

Together they laugh, like it’s some inside joke. Everyone sits down.

Mags is on a log, hunched over herself. She watches the fire. I’m not watching her. I’m watching the fire too.

Beyond the firelight, another confrontation. Something between a hiss, a scream, and a scowl. Raccoons. Raccoons in the nighttime. Raccoons fighting over who gets dibs on us when all is said and done. Who gets to pick our bones. The fire reflects in their eyes. When they look away, they are nothing.

Brian and Tommy don’t look at each other.

Mags and I don’t look at each other.

No one looks at anyone. Everyone looks at the fire.

Tommy makes a low noise. A scowl. A hiss. A raccoon growl. His eyes are black like the beast. “KKKKHHHEEHHHKKKKHHH!” he cries.

Brian responds in kind—

“KKKKHHHEEHHHKKKKHHHKKHH!”

Outside the light, the prowling eyes look unsure, make wider circles along the perimeter.

Brian and Tommy snarl and hiss at each other and here Mags and I are, stuck within one of their games. They paw at the night between them. I clench my own paws in my pockets.

*kkhheehhkcough* I choke.

Brian and Tommy look at me, smiling.

“Raccoon nighttime?” asks Brian.

“Raccoon nighttime,” says Tommy.

“Raccoon nighttime,” I whisper, to myself.

Mags crosses her legs.

Brian leans into the fire. “We are raccoons. We are the night. We prowl the night. We claw the night. We are the night and we are each other.”

Brian watches me, a smile creeping across his darkening cheeks.

I stand up. I want to be seen. I want to be seen by Mags. “Raccoons?” I announce, as I unbuckle my belt. “Are we raccoons?”

Brian and Tommy jump up and rip off their clothing like they know what they’re doing. “KKKKHHHEEHHHKKKKHHH!” they both scream. Their bodies are pale shadows, orange ghosts in the light. Naked, they step away from the flames. They merge into the shadow. They hiss. They growl. They prowl. A rustle in the brush then silence.

I can’t get my jeans past my sneakers. Mags watches me from her log by the fire. I yank, I pull, I crouch to the ground. Jeans at the ankles, I untie my sneakers, sit there, hunched over the dirt. A single tear bulbs in the corner of my eye. I don’t take off my sneakers. I tie them back up, I stand. I pull up my pants. Mags watches me.

Outside the light perimeter, two more raccoons roam with pale skin and they hiss at the moon sliding through the trees, and later in the distance, we hear screams and moans more human than raccoon.

My heart thumps at my inside ribs. “So,” I ask Mags, “how was your day?”

“Good.”

“That’s good.”

Brian and Tommy return with bruises. They return with scratches. Together they smell of raccoon.

Mags engages in conversation with Brian, and Tommy too. They talk about sex, they talk about tattoos. She takes off her top and shows them her ink, her little dipper. To me it still looks like moles. She leaves soon after Brian and Tommy retreat to their tent. I walk her back to her car though she tells me I don’t have to. In the dirt lot, I take her in my arms. I’m smelling her hair and still it smells of trees. Maybe it’s just the trees though.

“I should go,” she says. This time she doesn’t linger. She goes.

Brian and Tommy are still camped out there the next two nights. I meet up with them after work. We follow the railway tracks from the campground to a private cove that looks out onto Samish Bay. The sun drops down the sky and the horizon floods with orange. Then the orange is gone and a gradient of blue becomes the dome of the world. Brian and Tommy pass a cigarette back and forth as they watch the changing light. With Tommy’s hobo walking stick I hit pebbles into the water.

“Should I text Mags?” I ask Brian.

“I mean if you want. Why wouldn’t you?”

“Was she being— weird last night?”

Brian and Tommy look at each other.

“Weird like, bitch?” Brian asks.

“Well…”

“She was a bitch, yes.”

“Oh.”

“But she likes you. I can tell she likes you.”

“Oh?”

“That’s how I would act around guys I liked when I was her age.”

“Like that?”

“Like a bitch, yes.”

“Oh.”

Brian studies me, cigarette smoke drifting from his fingers. “What?”

“Do you remember telling her that I hadn’t had sex in five years?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You did.”

“Okay.”

“And then she said how she couldn’t go five days without having sex. That she hasn’t gone five days without having sex.”

“Yes?”

“Well—”

“You’re wondering why she won’t have sex with you.”

“No. I’m wondering why she won’t kiss me.”

“Oh.” Brian puts out his cigarette. “I really wouldn’t worry about it. She likes you.”

On the way back down the tracks, the moon follows us. The moon is full, brighter than I’ve ever seen it. The tracks glow like sleeping lightning. The trees are a bloody green and the rocky crags to our right are silver. I text Mags—

“Raccoon nighttime?”

She doesn’t respond.

Back at the campsite, I text her again—

“Raccoon nighttime?”

She doesn’t respond.

Days later, I text her again—

“Raccoon nighttime?”

She doesn’t respond.

Her sand castles drift into memory and I find the memory isn’t enough. I cling to what is gone. Violently, I masturbate in the shower for that feeling, but I feel nothing. I emerge from the bathroom naked, dripping. I drop to the floor.

I’m breathing heavy and hunched over my carpet and I know I need to chill the fuck out, get my shit together, because Mags isn’t worth this. Tears spot the carpet. Is this about Mags? Is this anything at all? I don’t know because I have nobody to talk to. It might be Brian. It might be Tommy. It might be Tommy ripping away my support system—Brian. It might be me trying to make Mags my support system and finding she won’t do. She won’t let herself be anything. I scream FUCK into nothing because I have no one to talk to. I scream FUCKFUCKFUCK into this blog because I have no one to listen.

“Are you alright?”

“No I’m not alright.”

“You’ll be alright.”

“I’ll be alright.”

“I was kidding, you won’t be alright.”

That’s me. Talking to myself at work. I’m watching Mags. She’s in the YA section again, reading some YA book. She hasn’t acknowledged me all night. I’m so hungry, I realize.

She re-shelves the book and walks toward me.

I wipe drool from my lips.

She wears that floral dress again, a zip-up hoodie thrown over. Her hands are in her pockets.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” I think I say.

“Want to go for a walk tonight?” she asks.

“Yes.”

A sudden calm takes me, a brief relief. Then it’s gone because there’s still that desperate hunger. It gets worse with the promise of its end.

8:59. One minute before closing. The phone rings. The phone rings.

The phone still rings.

I pick up. “Village Bookstore,” I say.

“What’s up,” the voice says, “is Magdalene there?”

“Magdalene?”

“Yeah, is she there?”

I watch Mags lock the front doors. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Walker.”

And my heart goes cold, because of course his name is Walker. I put Walker on hold.

“Phone for you,” I say to Mags.

“Who is it?”

“Walker.”

“Oh?”

In her voice I sense surprise, curiosity, excitement. She takes the phone call. She whispers into the receiver, her eyes shooting short glances in my direction. I pretend not to notice.

After locking up, on our way back to the parking lot, I know what’s coming, what must be said. When we reach her car she says—

“I’m burnt. Raincheck on that walk?”

I’m not sure I say anything, but I know I laugh. I laugh all the way back to my car because I know exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. It’s all happening just the same way as before. When it comes to loneliness, my mind is God. I am omniscient. I am unforgiving.

I don’t sleep that night because I remember that voice. I can’t get that voice out of my head. The voice of the man who calls himself Walker. I know that voice because I’ve heard it before. I know that voice because I’ve met him before. At first I had thought it was the bro who’s been coming around the store lately to hit on Mags, but now I know better. That voice goes further back.

That voice is without age.

I’m being followed. At the grocery store. At Boulevard Park. I turn around and there he is—the voice-man who calls himself Walker—though it’s only his eyes that now speak. When I first made his acquaintance, five years ago when all this lonely first started, I knew him by Rider, I knew him as Strider. I knew him as the man in the hood, the man in black, the sleeping man in the blue Honda. Five years. I haven’t seen him in five years.

Sometimes he looks like a vagrant, sometimes a business man, sometimes he looks like a little old lady with a stroller. But always, he drives that beat up blue Honda… though sometimes it’s red, sometimes it’s actually a Toyota. I can’t shake him. He arrives everywhere before I do.

I thought this part of my story was over, I thought it ended when he disappeared. You, reader, you don’t know what I’m talking about. This current story, this blog, I thought this was about something else. But nothing is ever over. The man in the hood taught me that.

I hear his voice everywhere. I hear his whispers. They loop like circles, they return like Time. I don’t know how I didn’t hear him coming earlier. That little voice in my head, it’s always been him. It’s been him all along, whispering in the dark. Approaching every girl I meet and telling them—

“He’s not for you. This man you seek, he’s meant for someone else. You’ll find another.

If they protest, he pays them off. Though most of the time I imagine they say nothing, shrug their shoulders and walk away. I never hear from them again. This unrelenting loneliness of mine, it’s the only explanation. He must have scared off the mouse girl, sent the coffeeshop girl to Alaska, banished her from this dead man’s dream. Now he’s reached Mags, told her to stay away.

I wonder how much he pays them. I wonder how far he’ll go if they refuse. In my dreams I see their bodies. I see the mouse girl decapitated in a trap, I see the coffeeshop girl’s body dashed bloody against the side of a mountain. Every girl I’ve seen on Tinder, I see their eyes staring up at me from the bottom of the lake.

More than ever, I’m careful to close the door nine times, to make sure it clicks shut. Through the blinds I watch the world move outside. Across the pond and through the trees the main road sleeps, but I see the man in the hood, the man in the blue Honda drive back and forth, back and forth, though sometimes it’s black, sometimes the man isn’t even a man at all. Sometimes she’s a raccoon. Eyes prowling, circling me in the dark.

🌒

do not join man next week. man will be lying low. he will not be here. join man in three weeks time for the beginning of PART III (in which nothing begins, it’s already begun)