You could see nothing through the window until a tapping began at the glass, a grey leafless branch, and you wondered what makes someone sit at a window table when it’s dark outside. You had to ask for another glass of water, yours was filled with hair. While you waited you didn’t know what to do with yourself. The shag carpet was green. You were looking at the dirt under your nails when you heard conversation from the next table over, something about a man’s ears. You took a drink from your new glass and were surprised to find it was orange juice, not water at all. When you called this to the waitress’s attention, she apologized sweetly but said it would be good for you, and you noticed for the first time that her necklace held a gold pendant that said Eat Shit. And the people at the next table over—you could only see their backs, broad and hunched over in checkered coats, and hats pulled down tight on their heads, though you knew their voices from somewhere—they sounded as if they were from a more confident country, perhaps from down the road. At times they sounded like men’s voices, at other times like girls’. Their heads turned for a moment and for a moment you knew that every day of your life they’d been whispering in your ear. Their faces were blurred, made up but hard to figure, and their voices sang as one but jumbled up and never clear:
There’s a bad man outside. In a window, at a door. He’s from somewhere far away, on this note we’re nearly sure. He has long, soft ears beneath the hat he never wears. He used to live here, so it goes, but no one knows him just the same. Some say he married and he took their name. Others swear he left after an accident, no one knows the full details, and he headed south, and down again, and people don’t remember but they were happy to hear of him no more. He was outside where we once lived and there’s the same smell in the air as before. If we could show you our faces you would see right away: there’s no pleasure in what we tell, we merely want you to know. Some accuse us of bringing him by speaking of him, but we wish no ill at all, oh no, we hope he carries on his way, because nobody can stop him, we hope he carries on his way.
The road was dark and straight, an old song glowed out of the radio. “Here he comes,” the men sang sweetly, their voices all alone. You laughed all the way home, slapped the wheel till your hand hurt. Leaves flicked at the windshield. You passed these things: long grey grass waving like a field of your mother’s hair, the last streetlight in town, a billboard full of youngish beauties smiling at a red chair. Through the trees a light glared the colour of a fast food sign. You knew you were almost home but you’d never seen that light before and when you got there the light was gone and so was the heat. So now you’re bundled up at home, your stomach grumbles, a new smell is in the air. The television shows tanned people, in skin-tight suits, smiling at you forever as they rock back and forth in metal chairs. It’s the last thing you see before you fall asleep. The fridge will rumble to life every hour, and you’ll jump awake, every time thinking someone’s at the door. When you wake for good you’ll find us at the foot of the bed, our backs to you once more. You’ll smell the make-up in the air just like you did last night. We’ll say, of course it was and always will be us, before we’ll sing you our song from before:
There’s a bad man outside. Up a stairway, through a door. Some say his eyes are dead, others call them soulful. All agree his hands look gentle, with short dark sprigs of hair. He’s well-spoken and very quiet, you have to ask him to repeat himself. You’ll lean in and that’s the last thing you’ll remember till you wake up the next morning on a bed made of fur. We know he’s out there because the smell’s the same as before. He’s from somewhere far away where everybody knows his name. He’s got long ears beneath the hat he never wears and he never looks the same. Some say we brought the bad man, but we wish no ill at all. Though there’s no pleasure in what we tell you, we want you more than anyone to know. Please trust what we say on his behalf, as our source bears no blame at all, oh no, he’ll bear no blame at all.
He came here before, now you’re sure, asking for someone you didn’t know. Late one day he came up the front stairs to your window and carefully peered in. You were sitting on a stool in the corner. He didn’t see you, it was dark in your half of the room. And you couldn’t see his face because the sun was low and almost blinding, the light behind him so bright he bore only a wild dark flame of hair if it was hair at all. He leaned in through the open window and you were certain you heard him sniff long and slow. When you shifted your weight, the stool creaked, and he stood up straight and smiled. You couldn’t see him smile, but you heard the saliva drag. He brought his hands up to the window, an empty bucket and a rag. Do you need your windows cleaned, he said. No, not today, you said quite softly. No, thank you, not today.
You’d better get your head under the sheets because there’s a bad man outside. Didn’t you see his shadow pass? Ah no, that’s the man on television, you say, the one that everybody loves. His ratings are higher than anybody ever. There are times when he looks off camera and a shiver goes through you. And you turn to the closest stranger and say, Did you catch that too? But they never say they do. He’s a conduit for all the worst in you. He says he’ll go across the world and rid you of what hurts, and he’ll take it all upon himself and you’ll have to pay him for it. He wears expensive clothes but he looks like hell warmed over. His teeth are immaculate but none of them are real. He’s all right in our books because we write the books for him alone. And he’s not going anywhere else until he’s done here. You’re either with him or against him and he’ll decide which one. No one sees his face by daylight because he has no face beneath the sun.
So many years ago you were up all night, a book in your lap, but you fell fast asleep when sun hit the blinds. And you ran and you ran but the streets were full of sewage and crows. Now a bell rings and you’re alone in an empty hall where the floor’s cold and clammy, and look at those dirty toes. There’s your room number but the door’s taller, you can’t see through the wire glass. Inside they are singing a rhyme you’ve never heard. How out of tune they sound. See the shock of your teacher’s hair high against the window, never so red before. You can almost see his face when someone calls your name from the lockers. Dropped something, we say, laughing into our hands. It’s small and papery and a draft nudges it around until it’s trapped under the sole of a shoe. We pick it up and say if you’re sorry we’ll bring it home to you. But it’s not the only one, you tell us, there are hundreds all over the floor. Now there’s a tap on the window and you’re afraid to look up. Bad boy, we whisper, you’re a bad boy and you have to stay outside. You won’t remember what you’ve dreamed. You dreamed about something you don’t remember. You dreamed you fell asleep and dreamed.
There’s a bad man outside. Through a doorway, down a hall. You’d better keep your cardboard boxes under the bed, all folded up and flat, because the man’s grown tired of the weather and now he’s looking for a roof to stay under. You thought you saw his shadow, but the ceiling’s got a stain, it’s brown down the side with yellow. When you wake up you’re thin and shiny as wax paper, shuddering as if a screen’s plugged into you, but it’s only the refrigerator doing what it’s not supposed to. And we still sit here at your table, in our checkered shirts and hats, singing the song we always sing in voices that confuse us. The bad man outside, he listens closely and taps along at someone’s glass. Go climb between those boxes, child, and put your head to bed. The bridge is closed, the lights are blown, and you don’t know where he’s at.