“Answers”

We couldn’t, for the life of us, describe him in any meaningful way. Not to each other and not even to ourselves. We’d seen the man hundreds of times or more, walking home from the library where he worked to where he lived on a dead end road not too far from mine. His place was the last house on the street, and cars were constantly turning around in his driveway, shining headlights all hours of the night into his bay window with the drapes that were always drawn.

The man appeared tall beside a short person and short beside a tall person. For a while, that was the best I could do. None of the others fared any better at describing him, it seemed. It was like we saw this man and we didn’t. Like our town was a great big desert, and he was a mirage and we were walking and walking towards it but getting no closer to seeing the image more clearly. It was like he was just out of reach of our limited understanding. The harder we tried to describe him to each other or ourselves, the more the words abandoned us.

It was infuriating. We saw the man every day, but we couldn’t say what he looked like. We couldn’t put into words the man we saw before us. I, for one, could only line him up, in my head, next to a picture of something else, something very different or very similar, and make comparisons.

Maybe we should have told our parents about our problem, maybe they’d have helped, but how do you tell your mom and dad that you can’t describe the man down the street? How do you tell them that? We were embarrassed, I suppose. Or just stubborn. We were becoming grown ups, and we wanted to solve this riddle for ourselves.

So we made a plan. We decided to confront the man at his home. The goal was to get in and out of the man’s house without harming him, of course, but we were willing, if necessary, to inflict pain for the information we required. We read, in the days before, about all the ways to extract information people weren’t willing to give of their own accord. Torture, it was called, but we didn’t like what that implied. Sometimes you just needed the answers to your questions.

We only had one question for the man, which was “what do you look like?” I had written this down on a slip of paper, which I’d folded into thirds and stuffed into my pocket. When the time came, if my words failed me, I would hand it to the man.

We met on the dead end street late on a school night, dressed in black and carrying flashlights in our clammy hands. We were nervous and excited. Nervous for all the obvious reasons and excited that we would finally get the answers we’d been looking for. We walked in single file to the man’s house. I led, and the last of us walked backwards, making sure we didn’t get snuck up on by whatever creatures hid in the night.

The drapes over the big bay window were drawn, as usual. The man’s yard was in desperate need of a good raking, and the shingles closest to the ground were curled up like elf shoes. The acrid smell of rotting leaves turned our stomachs, and the cold air made us shiver.

We hurried, quietly, to the front door. We put our ears to the frame, stilled our hearts and slowed our breathing, but we heard nothing inside. Only outside sounds: animals screeching, creaking branches, rustling leaves, whispers. I knocked. Nothing. I knocked again, louder and harder and the door cracked open with the added force. We hadn’t expected to enter this way, uninvited like thieves—just because we were prepared for rough stuff didn’t mean we wanted to attack the man at his home—but the door was open so we went inside.

Someone flipped a switch, either for more light or to alert the man that people were in his house and not to be startled, he would not be hurt, not unless he refused to cooperate, but the switch was dead. No light. Inside the house was darker than outside because at least outside you had the stars and that sliver of moon in the corner. We clutched our flashlights tighter in our fists and held them in front of us to show the way.

A few steps, and a crack: someone had dropped his flashlight on the floor. The long handle rolled around in half-circles like windshield wipers, light extinguished. When we looked back up, we saw the man in front of us. He was sitting at an oval table in what must have been the dining room. Had he been there the whole time, waiting for us? “Hello,” he said calmly, his calmness unsettling, and the rest of us dropped our flashlights onto the floor. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Our lights went out at the exact same instant. It was pitch black in the house then, but we could see the man as clearly as we’d always seen him. We could see him, but we couldn’t describe who or what we were seeing.

The man rose from his chair after an eternal minute. I was in front of the others, more or less, so the man was looking right at me. His face, I knew in my gut, was the same as always, the same face I’d seen in my dreams and on this dead end street for months—except that it couldn’t be. Because staring at me was my nose, my eyes, my mouth, my ears, and that shallow cleft in my chin I was so embarrassed of. Only everything was older, grayer, looser, faded. I turned to the others, and I knew they couldn’t describe what they were seeing, couldn’t put what was happening to them into words, but I could guess from their reactions. They were touching their cheeks as they studied the man, and they were white as ghosts. We all were. Our whiteness was how we could see each other in the dark.

I turned back to the man, his face trained on mine. “You’re here,” he said. “Finally.” He was talking only to me and not to all of us. I could feel it, the direction of his words like a beam of heat on my forehead. Behind me, the others were there and not there, each watching the projection of his future self—for what else could he be, I thought, but a projection?—with star-struck eyes.

I watched the man reach into his pocket and withdraw a folded slip of paper. I recognized it instantly as mine, the message I was supposed to give to him if my words failed me. The paper had torn and yellowed, and it was a miracle it hadn’t disintegrated over time, or whatever it was that separated this man and me, made us different and the same. “I was hoping you could read it,” he explained. “I can never find the words when I need them.” He handed me the paper as if offering a confession, and I accepted it likewise. “It’s a simple question,” the man went on, “seemingly obvious, I know, but your answer to it would help a great deal. Really,” he said. “You have no idea.” It was light in my hands, the folded paper. Lighter, still, as I unfolded it and the mostly faded letters appeared before my eyes.

It said: “What do you look like?”

We weren’t surprised by what happened next. Or more accurately, what didn’t happen. What didn’t get said or solved that day. What mysteries remained. When I could not speak, I returned the slip of paper to the man, reversing the transaction in a sense. It was my turn to confess. My turn to do the asking and his to do the answering, though I don’t think the man saw it that way. I think he saw it the way I was beginning to, which was the way it had always been and would always be. I think the man knew but didn’t accept the truth I was just then learning for myself: that not getting an answer, wandering dead end streets in the dark, is sometimes the only answer there is.

About Merrill Sunderland

Merrill Sunderland has an MFA from George Mason University. His writing has appeared in 100 Word Story, Airplane Reading, Corium, Full Stop, Junk, Star 82, The Healing Muse, and elsewhere. He lives on Cape Cod and is working on his first novel.