The Tall Man went missing a few days ago. Went missin’, which is to say no one had seen him though admittedly no one had looked for him either and though usually there’s a reason, and though usually we all know it just ain’t polite to go lookin’ for anybody unless they owe you money or got your only daughter and though usually I make it a point not to get involved with anybody’s business before I’ve had a good warm meal, I couldn’t help but notice my charge was gettin’ a bit red around the eyes, if you know what I mean. So we settled up our bags on our backs and got our transit cards in order and went on over to the dirty little garden apartment he calls his home on the side of town too west to be called the west side, but a bit too far east to be considered the east side of anywhere else. Before he even reached the gate, I saw his face off in the darkness of the back corridor, and he gave us a smile that loosened his cheeks up a bit. A cat ran out between my feet into the alley and he shrugged it off before I could apologize.
“She’ll be back,” he told us and waved his long arm into the dark hallway to offer us the way.
The Tall Man had a growth of beard crawling up his cheeks like vines over an abandoned skyscraper. His skinny body moved about in a hooded sweatshirt that came to his belly button like gone joints creaking inside the skin of a phantasm and it occurred to me that we had arrived just in time.
“How you been?” I ask the Tall Man while my companion eyes the corners of the dark for god knows what.
“Oh, I been alright,” the Tall Man says. “My woman’s gone away, though.”
“You don’t say,” I says. “When did that happen?”
“Bout a week now…”
“Oh lord, I’m sorry.”
“Nah, it’s for the best, you know. Always is.”
“Well did you all have a fight or somethin’? Was it the drinkin’?”
“Hm. Mine or hers.”
“Nah, nah, wasn’t nothin’ like that. She’s got the nerves, you know.”
I did know. Gave a look to the other room where two sets of growls had interrupted our conversation. Watched my charge wrestle about the floor with a mass of fur the Tall Man called Grommus, this big ol’ smile on his face and the animal snapping at the air about ‘is neck, and the Tall Man gave me a look and I gave him a shrug and we went back to business.
“Care for a drink, old friend?”
“Care a bit,” I said and took a look at the photographs on the fridge.
“How’s he gettin’ along?” The Tall Man asked.
“Well enough, well enough.” I said. “Got himself a job.”
“Ah so ‘e’s got money this time around.”
“I’ve always been good for it, friend.”
“Yes,” the Tall Man says as he hands me my glass of whiskey, a tall glass. “You ‘ave.”
Take a sip and watch my charge get the animal by the snout, and the beast licks him. The boy lets him go and they begin again.
“Why don’t we take this into the study,” the Tall Man says. “Bit more hospitable in there, and we can leave the kids in peace.”
Takes me back to a room at the end of a long hallway, piled to the ceiling with books of every color, uneven and dangerous, and crates of vinyl that might have recordings of Jesus’ voice. Settle down on a couch that he warns me about often.
“‘Bout time I had a few kids anyhow,” I tell him. “So what’s all this business with Nancy? She’s left before, I remember.”
“Yes, she has. She has. Not like this, though… Been a long time coming, you know. I always sensed it.”
“Yeah, you know. Little things. Stopped complaining so much when she got home from work. Didn’t bother to call the landlord when they didn’t turn the radiators on… I knew it couldn’t last long after that.”
“How did she tell you?”
“Left a note. Prettiest handwriting in the world that girl, but this time it was sloppy. Said she couldn’t take it anymore, the city’s dead, blah blah blah. Said she was sorry. Said maybe she’d call me some day. Left her miserable cat for me to tend for. That thing’ll be the death of me and Grommie, you just wait and see.”
The Tall Man reaches into the pocket of his sweatshirt and dangles a tiny baggie between his fingers.
“Well lookie here,” he says.
“Would you mind if we–”
“Let him alone,” the Tall Man says. “I’ll take care of him, don’t you worry. This one here is for grown folks.”
In a minute, I don’t feel the cold. Outside, the growling and the giggling sound like wolf children frolicking in a far-off valley. The Tall Man dangles his legs over the side of the couch and rests his head in my lap.
”Unh. Worse things ‘ave ‘appened, you know. Could’ve ‘ad a real fight. Could’ve cheated on me. Lord knows she threatened it ‘nough times… She hated the city, the poor thing. She stuck around for me, but it worked a tragedy on her nerves like you wouldn’t believe. You know, you all thought she had a drinking problem just ’cause, but it wasn’t like that. Whenever we went up to her parents’ cabin, she could be a kitten, all asleep in my arms… Mother thought I’d got her on the heroin, she was so damn skinny these last days. Told her I’d never let Nancy touch the stuff. Hell, if I subjected that little girl to half a the things I done to myself, she’d’a never made it this long. Such sensitive nerves…”
“You miss her, though, yeah?”
“Of course I miss her. Her stuff’s all over the place. Only been a week, I haven’t had time not to miss ‘er.”
“You want to go and look for her?”
“I could. Don’t think I will though. She asked me once, a long time ago, what I’d do if she wanted to move to the country. I told her that wasn’t the life for me. I was young, you know, and ‘sides, i didn’t think there was any country left to move to now… I can picture it now, though. Gettin’ old. Get me a patch of land, a farm maybe, nice little house and a lot of grass where Grommie could run around in. Drink apple cider with the neighbors on the weekends. Some place where people still take suicide with straight faces and everyone minds their business.”
“Really think you could do that, Tall Man?”
“Certainly,” the Tall Man said. “… Certainly not, not on my own. But with her, you know. She lived in this hellhole for me. Reckon the least I could do is shuck some corn for the girl.”
“That’s a hell of a sacrifice,” I said.
“Nah,” the Tall Man said. “It really ain’t.”
In the living room, my charge was lying on the couch with his head down, the beast’s head on his stomach.
“Aw, now ain’t that the sweetest thing.”
“Sure is,” I said. “Come on, boy. Time to go.”
The Tall Man walks us back through hallway and up the stairs to the gate. We linger a bit in the alley, the pinch still warm in my blood, though the waters by now receding.
“I’ll see you soon, yeah?” I ask the Tall Man.
“Good lord willing and the creeks don’t rise,” the Tall Man says. He stoops to hug us.
“Take care of yourself now.”
“You too, darling.”
My charge and me, we head down the long alley to the street. It was dark before we got here and now it’s even darker.
“Did you have fun?” I ask the boy. He nods. I put an arm around his sturdy shoulders, ruffle his hair, and we head on into the night, back the way we came, like blood-covered kings leaving the battle.