The Hanged Man

justinshearer_cigarette2

I was out again. This time, it was many things. A new obsession had come to me, a girl who seemed higher and brighter than possible. She was beautiful and powerful, tragic and complicated, and I was ill prepared for her level of manipulation and intrigue. She was teaching me things I never imagined I would learn, things I did not understand a woman could do.

Double talk and teasing, faces, many and varied, and some more painful to gaze upon than any other things I had seen in a childhood of pain and abuse. It was impossible to guess her next move, impossible to know whether an instant with her would be bliss or hell.

Many arguments can be made that she was in pain as well. Entire myths could be written about the life she was leading and the disappointments she was surviving. She was as broken as I. She was as terrible in her power and weak in her self worth. She was bent and needed love and nurturing. But her wrath was a thing of legend, and she sought to hurt as often as she sought to bless.

That night she had played a recorded voice for me, a voice of love from her past that I could not stop from rattling around in my mind. She had played the voice of a boy she had loved intensely and lost, a boy I could never live up to. With his voice in my head, I left my parent’s house, and my footsteps brought me home. Out into the ragged cold I ventured, and down into the wound, to the darkness where swam my leviathan and her sorrow.

I had brought this girl to the bridge, and my affections for her had scared away the beast under the bridge. I had brought her to tell her stories, but my leviathan had sensed my love for this other woman, and when I arrived at my caged home, the creature that loved me stayed hidden, though I called out for her.

I then saw a thing that did not look right.

A shadow danced in the middle of the bridge. I went to it and gasped in horror. There, hung from the cross bar of the truss, dangled a man from his neck. It was bent oddly, and he seemed to be looking up at the stars, though I knew he could not see them, or that he would forever be staring at them. Either one would not have surprised me.

He was dressed in the fatigue jacket of a soldier, but his hair and his scruff of beard marked him as retired or dishonorably discharged. Neither would have shocked me. He wore a soldier’s boots and gloves, and I decided that no matter his status, I could not leave him there. I climbed the frozen steel girders and shimmied my way across the beam to the rope.

The messy knot was tied frantically, with little or no form and much desperation. I knew I could not work its puzzle, and I pulled my pocket knife and sawed it open. With a great crunch, the man dropped from the top of the bridge and collapsed to its surface. I scurried down and rushed to him.

There was something horrid in the way he lay, something ghastly in the direction his head sat, twisted under his body. I gripped him under the armpits and hefted him up. I looked around and sought a place to lay him. It seemed wrong to leave him in the middle of the road, so I dragged him to the side of the bridge, sat him down, and leaned him against the railing.

His head lay unnaturally to the left, his chin almost in his armpit. I grabbed his skull and fought to lay it on his broken neck. The sick way it lobbed everywhere was horrible in its own right. I felt queasy and dirty by the time I balanced his cheek on his shoulder, his face bent in a twisted rag of horror. I sat cross-legged in front of him and took a deep, steadying breath.

His eyes opened.

I leaped back and kicked away. I grunted in terror, and when I was on the other side of the bridge, I threw my hands up over my eyes like a child watching a scary movie. Through the cracks between my fingers, I peered out at the man who drew in a shaky breath and exhaled with a slight whistle.

His jaw popped open, and I nearly screamed in fear and disgust.

“Pocket,” he gasped. “Pocket, please.” His wheeze was quiet, but the river below was nearly silent, and no sound of nature or man blotted out his whisper. I looked back up the road the way I had come, and I fought to get to my feet. I looked back at him, his breath frosting in the winter wind.

“Please, be with me.” I was either talking to Jesus or the beast within my chest, the savior of my soul or the guardian of my body. I pushed my way to my feet, and with almost impossible will, I neared the man.

“Thank you,” he said. “My pocket, my pocket please.”

I could not make myself touch him. I looked into his eyes, seeing little under the bushy eyebrows and I nodded.

“Which pocket?” I asked. Be it not the pants pocket. I did not think I could bear to fish through his front pocket.

“Chest pocket, inner shirt,” he said.

With growing dismay, I unzipped his jacket. Within, he wore a flannel open to betray a Cheap Trick concert shirt. I reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. The lighter was a pastel Bic stuffed into the cellophane of the pack itself. I held it up to his mouth, and he opened it and took the cigarette. With a flick and a shielding against the wind, I lit the cigarette and he drew in slowly.

“Take one for yourself,” he said.

I did not smoke at all, but under the circumstances, I took a cigarette, and with shaking hands, lit it to take one noxious drag. The smoke lit my head up and made it thin. It made me feel less dense, less troubled, and I took another drag.

“Death is not what they tell you it is,” he said. “No tunnel, no light.”

“Death?” I asked. My voice cracked and I fought to get myself under control.

“Yes, stranger, death.”

“You’re dead?” I asked. I did not know what I thought his reality was, did not know if I expected that he had hung himself and lived, but it did surprise me that he was dead. “You can’t be dead,” I said.

He drew on his cigarette and coughed, or laughed. I could not tell. “Tell yourself what you want, kid.”

“You killed yourself,” I stated.

“I did,” he said.

“Do you regret it?”

“I don’t know yet, but I don’t think so.”

With those words spoken, I looked up at the bridge truss where I had found him suspended. I thought of what it might be like to drop from that height and feel my neck snap. What it might be like to kick and struggle as I strangled to death.

“Why?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Why are you thinking about doing it yourself? You want to die, boy? You want to end it all, or are you just fascinated?”

“Don’t know yet,” I said.

He laughed at that. “Why would you do it?”

“We don’t have to talk about it,” I said. “I don’t think you want to discuss death right now. Do you want to talk about the life you led, or the love you knew?”

“War,” he said with a drag and an exhale. “They say it’s hell. And in a way, it is. But it is nothing like coming home, kid. Coming home is the real hell. War ends for the civilian, never really does for the soldier.”

“You were in Desert Storm?” I asked.

“What is Desert Storm?” he said. “I was in Nam.”

My mind rebelled and I looked at him again. Scruff of beard, but what I could see from the moonlight showed no sign of gray. This was a man out of time, a man who had been dead for a while.

I decided if he knew that, it might be devastating. I changed the topic.

“Why did you do it?”

“Can’t get the images out of my head.” He drew in again and so did I. The tobacco burned my throat, but I was too proud to cough. I held it back and croaked out my next question.

“The killing?”

“Yeah that, but the way I found her when I got back, too. The way they all looked at me. The way it all felt.” He grinned, “Can’t describe it. Won’t try.”

“I don’t need to know,” I said.

“Why do you want to join me?”

Was it her that made me want to borrow his rope? Was it the way she looked at me and the way she smiled when she hurt me? Was it the darkness creeping up on me? The dreams that showed me things my mind denied, sweat and a sharp pain in terrible places, the grunting of a man behind me. Was it that? Or my petty need to say, see this is what you bought, you treated me like crap and this is what you get? Was it suicide for revenge on the people who wronged me?

“Don’t know, really. Just don’t want to be here,” I said. I looked at the cigarette, relieved to see it almost dead, sad to see it go.

“Are you haunted? Can you not see the light, or are you bothered and lazy?” he said.

Haunted no, not yet. I could feel it coming, but would not check out in fear. Bothered and angry, yes. Was that enough?

I looked at my lap, “I just don’t want to be ignored any—” I looked up and he was gone. I could find no sign of him. He had been a dream. I waited to wake up.

When I didn’t, I took another drag of my cigarette and tossed it.

I went home.

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