The Man Who Wasn’t There

William Kotzwinkle

Idle one evening and dully curious, I chanced to turn over a painting that hung on the wall of my rooming house. Wrapped around the wire was a little scroll of paper. I opened it and read:

Now that you’ve met me
Can you forget me?
I offer you a chance.

In the bottom corner of the paper was the name of a tramp steamer and its next port of call. I rolled the little scroll back up, but instead of placing it upon the wire, I slipped it in my pocket, as a souvenir.

I thought no more of the matter, but fate, or chance, had me on that tramp steamer when next it sailed. It was a voyage of several weeks, and I’d been staring at the empty springs of the bunk above me for many nights and mornings before I noticed there was a tiny figure tucked inside the coils – the figure of a unicorn, cleverly shaped out of folded paper. Examining it, I suddenly knew that it had been made by the man whose note I carried. I followed his thoughts – to the unicorn, mythical creature never seen.
I made inquiries; no one on board, from cabin boy to captain, recalled a passenger with the habit of folding paper into little animals. But when we docked in port, I had not forgotten him.

I wandered the bright waterfront, through the rich smells of cargo – spices and fruit and salted fish, mixed with the smell of fuel oil. It is a smell to make you think, that disturbs your imagination. I was leaning against a large packing crate, watching the great nets swinging out of a ship’s hold. I closed my eyes, I drifted; voices came, talking of strange things in disjointed ways I couldn’t follow. Yet I felt oddly at peace with myself, half asleep in the moist sea air. And I turned, knowing which direction I must take.

I walked, trusting now to a dreamy certainty, and the strange voices in my head continued their mad talk, conversations intersecting, wild tangents developing, the whole of it making a bizarre sort of sense. And then I woke, abruptly, at the doorway of a waterfront café. A pocket of silence enveloped me. Here was where I must eat.
The place was empty. The girl who worked there hesitated a moment while deciding where to seat me. And then she seemed quite certain. “This table has a special view,” she said. But there was no view at all, for the window was several feet above my head, and I found myself gazing at, instead, the patch of sunlight on the wall. “Yes, that’s it,” she said, “you watch it closely.”

I ate, drank my coffee, smoked a cigar, and every so often glanced at the square of sunlight on the wall. I noticed, finally, that there were shadows moving in the square, cast by a tree outside, which swayed in the gentle sea wind. “See,” she said, “there’s the little horse.” And she pointed at the distinct silhouette of a unicorn, dancing in the sunlight. “It’s the tree that makes it; the branches are shaped that way. A gentleman showed it to me.”

“And who was this gentleman?”

“Oh, just a traveler.”

I could get no more from her than that. As I contemplated the dancing shadow of the little horse, I once again unrolled the scroll.

Now that you’ve met me
Can you forget me?

My cigar burned to a fine white ash. The girl brought me more coffee and laying it down, said, “He runs to the east.”

“Who, in heaven’s name?”

“Why, the little horse. See? That’s the way he gallops. And in a minute or so he’ll disappear because the sun has moved. His shadow will be gone.”

He galloped to the east, slowly fading, and I felt myself wanting to hold him back.

“There,” she said, “all gone. But he’ll return, the same time tomorrow.”
But I would not. I would be heading out, to the east.

I traveled in a rattling old train, not really knowing how far I would go. I bounced upon my hard wooden seat and gazing out the window, nodded off; again the dream voices came, winding my thoughts into their own weird streams. At one point, I seemed to remember – a place so delightful it could not be of this earth; everything was touched by an immense beatitude, and there was no struggle. I came awake with a jolt and banged my head as the train braked into a station. I had no idea where I was – and so this, I knew, was my stop.

The platform was empty, sunbaked; I stood on it, in swirls of steam from the engine. I had the sensation that if I didn’t move a muscle, the sky itself would pour into me. Had the voices of my dreams told me this? I stood perfectly still as the train pulled out, and I listened to it chugging off into the distance, and finally I was wrapped in the soft, buzzing atmosphere of the tropic heat.

“You’ll need a cab,” said a voice at my shoulder.

“Will I?”

“If you are going anywhere, you will,” said the cabman, a gruff-looking fellow in a crinkled cap whose visor was worn and dirty.

“I’m looking for someone,” I said.

“And I shall help you find him,” said the cabman.

“He folds bits of paper into animals,” I said, showing him my unicorn.

“Never saw anything like that before.”

“Then what is the point of my searching here?”

“Who knows?” he replied. “Have you a better place to look? The train has gone, and there won’t be another one until tomorrow.” He picked up my bag and tossed it in his cab.

“I circle here day in and day out,” he said, as our cab picked its way into the traffic of the city. “I know the secrets of the streets, every one of them.”

The cab was hot, and the city was a labyrinth of winding lanes through which we rode aimlessly. The buildings were close together, and people crowded on the sidewalks in front of them. “Amongst so many,” I said, “how can I hope to find him?”

“Because he’ll stand out in the crowd,” said the cabman. “The sun will shine on him for you. I’ve been on this sort of search before.”

“You have?”

“Another stranger, like yourself, came through, on a similar mission, looking for a man who wasn’t there. We took the city apart, I’ll tell you.”

“And were you successful?”

“My client was not dissatisfied.”

I rode, I watched, I saw the city’s face in doorways, in windows, in the deep glades of the parks. “Who was this other man who searched with you?”

“He came up from the seacoast. We had a good time together, just as you and I are having now. Our destination was vague, we stopped for tea, we sat in the park. Then later we drove in the hills, among the chickens and pigs. I remember that day, as he predicted I would. “Now that you’ve met me, he said, you’ll not forget me.”

The heat pressed on my brow; the rear view mirror flashed with brilliant light. The man I searched for had been here, had hired this cab. Had he been following someone? How many fools had gone before me?

We circled, the cabman and I, and we rode into the hills. At day’s end we stood together in the sunset, looking at the city below. “Who knows?” said the cabman. “At this hour he might fall from the sky.”

We looked at the clouds, and I saw a highway, tinged with red and gold, running through them. It changed shape slowly, and fleecy mountains appeared on both sides of it. I pointed it out to the cabman, and he said, “The road in the clouds always leads south.”

A broken-down bus carried me south. The aisles held children, small animals, chickens. Dust swirled up through cracks in the floorboards; the road was filled with holes, and we tumbled around as we rode. I daydreamed out the window, down into the canyon that passed to our left. Within it was a great river, glittering like a serpent with the sun on its back.

The bus made many stops, and when it was filled we took passengers on the roof. They sang as they rode, bouncing around above us. Seated beside me on the bus was a man with his hat down over his eyes. I asked him where he was bound, and from underneath his hat he named a mountain village I’d never heard of. After this brief exchange, I must have dozed off, for I woke in a dream and found myself gliding like a water strider on the sun-sparkling river of the canyon, my feet barely skimming the surface; gliding just ahead of me was the man who’d been seated beside me. He turned to me and smiled, his gold teeth flashing.

I woke with a start and found the seat empty beside me. I looked out the window and saw the man walking up a nearby hill toward a crumbling stone wall overgrown with vines. He turned and looked at me.

I leapt into the aisle and made the driver stop, which he did with reluctance, and only after we had proceeded far down the hill. I jumped to the road. In the distance, I saw the man crest the hill and then disappear beyond the vine-covered wall. I rushed toward it, and when I turned its crumbling corner, I found myself before an abandoned farm. A small main house, with doors and windows hanging off, stood in the midst of a jungle that was slowly swallowing it.

I stepped onto the creaking porch, where enormous bright spiders hung in their webs. I entered the house and saw chairs covered with moss, and vines growing out of the floor. A lizard gazed at me from a tabletop, its golden-flecked eyes flashing. They held my gaze as the sun inched its rays along the windows. I felt I could be held forever, for the lizard seemed to whisper to me with the bizarre and inhuman voice of my dreams.
Breaking the spell, I turned back toward the door, where I saw a white moth imprisoned in a spider’s web. Stepping closer I saw it was not a living moth but one made from a bit of folded paper.

I came to another city, feeling weighted with the futility of searching for a man who might be anywhere. There were more crowds, a great market, a tangle of thousands. How could I hope to resume contact? And for what purpose?

I stood in the market, my back against a post, and was drowned in the voices, the commotion, the sunlight. Directly behind me was a seller of birds, with rows of cages hanging in an open stall.

“No birds so rare as these. Strange cries and habits.”

He chanted this over and over, and his birds muttered and squawked. I was weary, I drifted, and the daydream of the world began to speak. It said, Listen to the birds more carefully. I turned an ear toward the cages. The raucous conversation of the birds was louder now, and I attended to every syllable of their speech. Their inhuman, rasping tongue carried me deeper; with a sudden shock I felt the outline of another world, cast within our own, but whose features were known only to the birds.

I opened my eyes. The seller was standing beside me. “You wish a bird, my friend? No birds so rare as these.” He extended his arm toward the cages.

I saw a black-and-white dove, as gentle a creature as I’d ever laid eyes on. “That one.”
“A choice of choices, mister. A bird who has traveled much. Here are her papers, one certified bird.”

“Certified? By whom?”

“By me, of course.” The seller handed me the bird in a little wicker cage, and I carried it away, to a hotel room.

I hung the little cage in the sunlight, and the dove turned toward the sky. I opened the window so she might feel the wind, and still she gazed, with a longing I could not bear to watch. “Fly,” I said, and opened the cage. She leapt into the air and winged away.
I spent the next day in the hotel garden, immersed in the sound of bees and the songs of birds. I drifted, I dreamed, I felt other guests pass in the garden, but I was the man who wasn’t there, an eccentric, an idler, nodding in half-sleep among the flowers.
On the final evening in my room, my dove returned to the windowsill. Her leg was banded with a scroll. Removing it I saw it bore the name of another city, hundreds of miles off. And of course I found my way there.

“On the trail of someone, are you? Police? No? Private investigation, I see, well you’ll have a job of it. This country swallows men like a frog swallows grasshoppers.” He sat across from me in the hotel lobby, drinking iced lemonade. “I come through every month with my line of goods. I’ve seen some faces, escaped convicts, I’m sure. Those with something to hide land here. Is your chap one of those?”

“I’m not sure what he is.”

“Mystery man, eh? I’ve known a few. But I never pry.”

I spent each afternoon with the salesman in the lobby, beneath the slowly turning fan. I liked him, for he talked as the cicadas sing, with an incessant droning.

“Yes, I’ve met some odd ones. They work in the jungles for a while and come out half mad, with a little money, which they quickly spend. I’ve tried to understand them, but they don’t understand themselves. Visionaries? I’m not so sure. But they have queer ideas. One fellow I met said he knew the route to a hidden world. Was I interested in it? I asked him if they sold drygoods there, and he said no; so I said sorry, it wasn’t a territory I’d feel at home in. He sat right where you’re sitting, and like you spent much time in the hotel garden. I wonder what his story really was.”

“He was the man who wasn’t there.”

“Well, he’s certainly not here now.” The salesman sipped his lemonade. “I never did run across him again. Those kind travel on.”

“Perhaps he found his hidden land.”

“Perhaps. But I should first try –” He took out a business card and scribbled the name of a town on it. “I’m certain he mentioned this place.” The salesman wiped his brow with a yellowing handkerchief. “Odd, I haven’t thought about him in a dog’s age.”

“Now that you’ve met me, you won’t forget me.”

“He did say something like that. Well, he was right. Some things do stick in the mind, don’t they?”

I crossed a mountain chain, to the salesman’s city. My money was running out. I took the cheapest room I could find in a dilapidated building. My door had no lock and would swing open by itself; if I’d had anything to steal, a thief would’ve had an easy time. My only neighbor on the floor was a man I never saw, a recluse like myself. But one night he had a visitor, and I listened for hours to their soft voices through the wall. I lay in bed and drifted, hearing the hidden world in their conversation; the doorway to my elusive land seemed to be just these two strangers talking, traces of their muffled words mixed with the sounds of the city. The hidden land was everywhere, but the intersection belonged to sleepwalkers, dreamers, insects. I lay entranced as velvet textures of darkness rolled over me, and the eyes of jewel bugs shone. Then, somehow, I was startled out of my trance.

The conversation in the next room had ceased, and the visitor was leaving. I heard his footstep in the hall, and my door swung open as it so often did, from a breeze at the window. I heard him strike a guitar, and then I heard him singing as he went down the winding stairs. Was I still dreaming? The words I heard him sing were these:

“Now that you’ve met me
Can you forget me?
I offer you a chance…”

We hear things as we imagine them to be, and emerging from sleep a dream can twist reality, this I know; but I hurried from my bed, threw on my clothes and thundered down after the guitar player on the staircase.

He had already reached the street before I’d turned the final landing. I raced through the front door and found an empty thoroughfare. But still his voice was echoing, somewhere in the darkness:

“I’m the man who wasn’t there…”

From which direction was it coming? The hollowness of night can lead our ears astray. I chose and followed where I thought the song was coming from. But soon enough, I realized the singer had disappeared. I was alone on the street.

When I returned to my building, I knocked on my neighbor’s door. Like mine, it had no lock and swung easily open. I entered, but the room was empty. On the following day, it remained empty, and upon inquiring of the landlady I learned that my neighbor had checked out. “But who was he?” I asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know. In places such as this, people come and go. That’s the way they want it, isn’t it?”

I returned to my floor and entered the empty room for another look around. It was shabby, with only a cot and a few broken pieces of furniture. A strong tobacco smell, probably decades old and embedded in the walls, filled the air. How many faceless wanderers had sat here smoking on the edge of the cot, staring at the floor, considering their fate? How many? They were all the man who wasn’t there.

I saw a railroad timetable stuck in the cushion of a chair. I snapped it up, found one of the departures marked, and in very little time I was at the station. “A ticket, please.”

“To where?”

To wherever is marked on this.” I slid the timetable across the ticket window.

* * *

“In there.” I was hurled into a cell, whose damp embrace had long awaited me. My crime had been a small infraction of impossible rules, but the wanderer has no defense and none to vouch for him.

I dwelt in this cell without light or hope until one night I heard tapping on the wall. The code was a simple one, and it led me to a tunnel being dug under the floor. I joined the digging, beside a confederate whose face I couldn’t see, whose form was just a shadow wriggling toward me every night. “The tunnel’s long been here,” he whispered to me. “We just need to open it again.”

The tunnel was thick with a black tapestry of cobwebs. I scratched at the soft earth with my spoon. I knew who’d dug it out before us. I felt his handiwork. One morning the jailer had come to look for him – and he’d been the man wasn’t there.

Weeks of tunneling, then we emerged, like dead men from a grave. We were on the hills above the prison, and the stars were above us. We stood there covered in dust and drank their coolness in. “Which way?” I asked.

“Better we separate,” he said and put out his hand to me. His palm was leathery as a badger’s. I never saw his face, covered as it was in dirt and darkness. Then he was gone, and I was soon the same, no more than a shadow, hurrying along. I am no one, I said to myself to keep my courage up and to remind myself how best to blend with the night. They’ll come to look for me, but I’ll be the man who wasn’t there.

I crossed the border to another country. By frequenting a certain quarter of the border town, I was introduced to one who created new identities for people. “What would you like to be? A brain surgeon?”

“Something simple, please.”

“Here you go, then – this document shows you have worked as headwaiter at a number of fine restaurants.”

“And where are these restaurants?”

“Where? Why, nowhere of course. But who will question such a résumé as this? Notice the detail – managers’ names, dates, type of menu – it’s all there. Very well – ” He made a little package of my papers and handed them over to me. “The new you. The old one has fallen through a crack in the earth, never to be heard from again. In such knowledge, there is great comfort, don’t you agree?”

I went to work in the restaurant trade. My fortune increased. I became a well-known figure in restaurant society, which has its kings and queens, its crown princes and princesses, and its attending ministers of state, of which I was one. A decade passed, during which I was rewarded with many gifts. I had elegant rooms in town, a fabulous wine cellar, a collection of rare stamps, a swift car.

One day, I received a note from a gentleman, requesting a table for lunch. I did not recognize the name, and though I placed him in our book, the table I marked down was not our best. I had my regular clientele to consider. When the hour that the gentleman had reserved rolled around, I had his table ready, off in a corner of the room, a bit too near the kitchen for our best customers but suitable, I fancied, for him. But he did not arrive as expected. He did not arrive at all. I was about to scratch his name from the book, when some feeling, long buried, stayed my hand. My station was by the window, and it was open on this day, and I heard the sound of insects in the hotel garden. I turned back toward the empty table, and it seemed to be bathed in a peculiar glow. While all the other tables around it were crowded with society notables, the empty table was the obvious center of the room. I sat no one else there, though impatient guests were now standing in the waiting room and craning their necks toward it.

“And who are you holding it for?” asked a woman seated nearby it. “Someone very important, I should say.” And she gave me a conspiratorial glance, which I answered with my polite and passive mask. But my head was spinning; the insects were singing. Presently the manager drew me aside, nodding discreetly toward the table. “Who will be dining there?”

“He is already dining,” I said. “He is feasting, in fact.”

“But I don’t understand, we have other guests waiting.”

I stared at the table. He had returned for me. My feelings in turmoil, I abandoned the restaurant and once again took to the road. Carrying all my savings with me, I was now able to stay in the best hotels and was received everywhere as a man who must be someone. But I was one who’d awakened from a sleep of years; how had I forgotten my path? We forget, that is all; a spell comes over us, and we forget.

* * *

I sat at the table of a café in a mountain village. The sun was reflected brightly on the polished tabletop. I stared at it and realized – the greatest mystery is here before me, the sun is shining. A great light is blazing somewhere, and I see it. “I see the sun!” I cried aloud. I drew startled glances to me. Of course the sun was shining; of course it could be seen. After all, it was the sun.

But we stand on a dark ball of stone, looking at a bright ball of fire. “Impossibly strange!” I cried. “How dare we explain!”

I was asked, gently, if I was all right. Did I wish medical assistance? A cold drink? Perhaps an ice pack on the head?

“We’re lost in the void; we don’t know where we are.” I gestured, at the sky, the earth, tried to explain to the mountain villagers that we are lost, generation after generation, in the unexplainable. “The sun, I see the sun. There it is! An immensity of power, floating above us. Don’t you see?”

“That’s right, sir, the sun is shining, and we’re all as glad of it as you are. Please try to calm yourself.”

“Fools,” I muttered. “Hopeless fools.” I staggered from the café, drunk with sunlight. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, as if I’d swallowed its rays.

A boy pedaled by on his bike, and I stopped him, for I felt that he would understand what the others could not. “Young man, listen to me! I’ll teach you the mysteries of the sun!”

He looked at me in fear and pedaled off in a hurry. And those at the café gazed at me suspiciously. I realized my error at once, and with the specter of prison before me again, I apologized to the waiter at the café. “The heat,” I said. “Or a touch of fever, perhaps from the drinking water. Forgive me.”

“Of course, sir, I understand.” But I saw him turn toward the others at the café and make a signal with his finger to his head, as he whispered, “Not all there…”

It’s true, I said to myself, as I walked on. I’m not all there. I’m the man who isn’t there.
I traveled farther from the haunts of ordinary people. I wandered up into the vastness of the mountain peaks. I saw him, so I thought, high above me, a solitary climber who turned and looked down toward me, then vanished into a mist.

I was given a piece of crystal by a practitioner of magic and told to seek him whom I sought within the glassy plains and peaks of the object. I saw a tiny man, wandering in that craggy dimension. He vanished into a tiny valley, where I could not follow.
I traveled with the tribe called the Veiled Men of the Desert, who told me that they knew the one I sought, that he was an angel.

Two thieves I met said they knew him, too. “He is the King of Thieves, that one, the Man Who Isn’t There. No trace of him is ever found in those places that he robs.”

“And have you met him?”

“Ah, no, he is much too clever for that. What need has he of us? But let me tell you – he could be any of those we see each day, and we would never know. He could be me, my friend. He could be – you.”

No search worth making is over soon. It must last a lifetime if it is to matter to us at all. You will find these notes, but you won’t find me, for when I abandon them it will be at my vanishing, into the deeper mystery of the void. I will enter, but he will have entered before me, and even in those interior realms where I anticipate the gift of light and an all-seeing eye of vision, he will elude me. He will always be ahead, across the eternal playing board, a tiny sun, an insect’s carapace.

* * *

“Well, that seems like the lot,” said the elder police officer, as he concluded his list of those items found in the room occupied by a man who had gone missing. “A pauper, from all appearances. He’ll probably be found floating head down in the canal. A number of them go that way. They lose hope, you know.”

“Yes,” said his assistant, a junior officer who’d read carefully through the pages of the yellowing notebook containing the missing man’s brief story. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Hello, what’s this?” The senior officer picked a bit of paper out of an ashtray on the windowsill. “Some kind of little animal. Here, put it with the rest of his junk.”

“Yes, sir,” said the young officer. But before doing so, he unfolded the little animal and found, written within it, this message:

I offer you paper unicorns
folded inward, into time.

“Come along, then,” said the elder officer. “We’ve got better things to do than hang about here.”

The young officer remained where he was, the tiny paper figure in his hand. He lifted his head to the window, a peculiar look in his eyes. As he gazed down the street toward the distant hills, it seemed as if he’d already packed his bags and gone, already added his name to the list of those who follow and search for the man who isn’t there.

Now that you’ve met me
Can you forget me?