MonkeyTales – Episode 4 – “A Man Who Wasn’t There”
by D.J. Sylvis
Listen to the episode here
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away …
— Hughes Mearns
It was quite early in the morning a few months ago; I had just fed the cats and was going back upstairs to take a shower. As I stumbled my way up the staircase, I ran headfirst into a man shuffling back and forth nervously at the first landing. (And yes, as it would turn out, in at least one way of looking at it he wasn’t really there.)
I suppose I should have been threatened; stranger in my house and all. But he was so unassuming, swaying there in a bathrobe that had obviously seen better days, if not better lifetimes, carrying a threadbare towel slung casually over one shoulder and a tote bag of the sort given out as a premium by airlines. The only thing that occurred to me was to gape for a moment, and when this seemed to be too much, to turn that into something of a half-yawn as if this happened to me every day.
“I’m sorry, can I get by?” I asked, turning to side-step past him. For a moment, I thought he’d let me and maybe then he’d just leave before I had to summon up some sort of machismo I don’t really possess, and I could pretend it had all never happened. But instead, he took a step down to my level, putting one hand on my shoulder, and looked at me with eyes that have seen too much of the Universe and know exactly what it’s like to experience that for the very first time.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His accent was British, so I believed him – I’ve never known a Brit who wasn’t sorry for something. “I don’t mean to – oh,” he said, looking closer, “I don’t really frighten you. Well, good then.”
He fidgeted for a moment, as if he’d lost his place in a script, then brightened up. “Let’s just assume that I do, for the sake of argument.” He took a step up the stairs again, then back down, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I don’t mean to frighten you,” he repeated, “but I’m afraid I do need your help. We’re just a bit lost.”
It was at that point where I made a bit of a shameful assumption, and I want to apologize ahead of time. It’s a city, and we’ve had people wander into the building before, and … well, you know what I thought. My hand drifted toward the pocket where I hold my wallet, but it was upstairs on the corner of my desk. “Umm, I could get you some change … for something to eat?” I ventured, trying to edge past him again. My phone was up there as well.
“Pardon me?” he replied, crinkling his brow and tugging on the sleeves of his robe. “Oh. Yes. Homeless. No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not – well, technically I am homeless, though I suppose in this Universe …” He seemed to realize something just then, and a look of sad nostalgia passed over his face. He shook his head. “She’d never allow it. Eddies in the space-time continuum and all.”
“Is he?” I asked politely.
“There! There! You see?” The man got red in the face, hopping up and down. “You wouldn’t know that joke if—” He stopped himself, putting the towel over his face for a moment and inhaling like an asthmatic at a steam-bath. When he’d calmed himself, he lifted the edge enough to peer out at me. “I think we should start one more time.”
I moved a step down, and he followed again, placing his hand once more on my shoulder. “The thing is, we’re a bit lost.” One of the cats purred her way by, and he reached down to stroke her head absently. “And we need your assistance.”
I nodded. Something was beginning to come together for me, but it was early, and I couldn’t quite get my brain to connect the dots. I stalled for time. “Lost? Well, I’ve got a Toronto map upstairs …”
I pushed past the man, and this time he let me by, following up the stairs to my office. “Canada! No wonder,” he said, puffing slightly as he climbed. “It’s so difficult to arrange these things exactly. We expected America, and I was confused that no one had shot at me or tried to sell me anything.”
I opened the door to my room and switched on the light, pushing past the first bookshelf. The man came in behind me, and his eyes opened wide. He was surrounded on every side by an unbroken wall of bookshelves, comic books, and toys. “I knew you’d be the right one,” he murmured, stroking a spine here or there. “I followed you in from the trash bins; you were making Doctor Who jokes to yourself.” He looked over at me and smiled weakly, shamefully coy.
A light flickered on somewhere inside my head. It was impossible to believe – but that’s why he’d come to me in the first place: half my library was filled with impossible things. I spoke to him: “So what was that about being lost, Mr. Dent?”
He opened his mouth to respond, stopped for just a moment, and closed it again. He lifted his eyebrows, waiting for me to say something more, but when I stood quietly, he lowered them and sighed. “Yes. Well, I should have expected. Marvin said that there was a—”
“Marvin’s here too?” I practically shouted, springing up and upsetting a stack of Red Dwarf books on the edge of a shelf. Across the house, I heard my wife talking in her sleep. I asked again, quietly: “Marvin’s here?”
“Not at the moment,” Arthur replied. “Not even in the limited way that I’m here. Believe me, you’re as well off.” He was starting to sound a bit irritable. “Now back to the, there’s really not much time –”
“And Zaphod? Is Zaphod here?” I couldn’t help myself.
Arthur sighed again, thrusting both hands into the pockets of his bathrobe. “He will be, and he’s not going to be happy if I don’t have some time with the book before he gets back. And when he has headaches, the whole world hears about it.” He dug the toe of one slipper into a pile of papers, muttering to himself about how he was meant to be the hero, after all.
I could hear more noises from the bedroom. I really didn’t want to try to explain all this to Jodie, so I hurried. “Umm, Mr. Dent, Arthur – which book did you need?”
He looked at me. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said evenly, but then looked embarrassed. “I only need it for a minute or two.”
I reached behind me without needing to look, picked up a thick hardback, and handed it over. Half the title was visible above his pale fingers: The More Than Complete … He sat on the edge of my chair and flipped through the pages hurriedly, seeming to forget completely that I was there. “No … no … god, I remember that … my kingdom for an eraser …” he murmured to himself.
I stood and waited, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Eventually, I picked up a cat. When it yowled to be put down again, Arthur looked up and noticed me. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’d explain, but …”
“Eddies?” I said brightly.
He smiled wanly. “Eddies, of course. And we’ve been a bit diverted.” He buried his face in the book again.
After some time had passed, a soft chiming came from somewhere in his tote bag. Arthur set down the book, a satisfied look on his face. “Excuse me, I should answer this,” he said, and thrust his hand deep into the main pocket of the bag. He pulled out a rock, several subway tokens, a few scraps of paper, another rock, and finally a small black device with a light at the top which was blinking furiously.
“Sub-Etha—?” I started to ask.
“Sens-O-Matic, yes,” Arthur finished. “My, er, ride will be here shortly.” He touched the cover of the book one more time, stroking it reverently. “You should probably put this away,” he said dreamily. “It’s too tempting. Far, far too tempting.” He handed it back to me, but I could see that his hand was shaking as he let go.
“So, umm, what’s it like?” I asked him while he crammed everything back into his bag. “Being a fictional character, I mean. Do you get to—” and at just that moment, suddenly there was a one hundred and fifty-metre long starship parked somehow in the hallway outside my room. By my calculations, the bedroom and my somewhat-sleeping wife had to be somewhere underneath the bridge at that moment, but somehow, I also knew that it was all mathematically being sorted. There was a soft ticking sound, like a motor cooling off, and a hatch opened in the side.
Two heads poked through the doorway. “Yo, monkeyman! Did you scope the master plans?” One pair of eyes swiveled in my direction. “What’s with the dirt jockey? You see something weird, little Earthman?”
The last thing I needed was an intergalactic, interdimensional incident. “Umm, nothing. Nothing at all.”
Both heads grinned, and I thought I’d lose my sanity. “Then you’re not looking in the right direction, strag. I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox; weird is my middle name.”
Arthur stepped in between us. “I have the directions, Zaphod. We should go before we, you know, rupture space and time. Again.” He turned back to me for a moment, and pulled something from his bag. “Here. Thank you for … not shooting me, I suppose.”
I looked down. I now held a book of matches inscribed in gold with the words, If You’ve Done Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast … (turn over) I didn’t need to; I knew what would be on the other side. “Thank you,” I said, pocketing them. “Anything for my favourite protagonist.”
He looked gratified. “That’s very kind of you to say—” he began, but Zaphod reached out and yanked him through the hatch. “Time to get the zark out! Er, have a nice life, Earthbag.”
“You too,” I said politely. “Good luck figuring out the Question … you know, that matches up with forty-two.”
The hatch began to slide shut. “Oh, we know the Question,” Zaphod said. “Now we’re on the lookout for the cat who asked it.” One more flash of those maddening twin grins, and they were gone.
The next morning after feeding the cats, I ascended the stairs with more caution than usual. Thankfully, there was no one there, and I let out a sigh of relief as I walked into my room – which suddenly turned into a gasp of surprise, the two meeting to make me cough as if I’d swallowed something wrong.
When I could breathe again, the alien was still there, standing in the middle of the space between bookshelves. He looked like the typical ‘grey’ alien from an X-Files episode, though with a more elaborate outfit and a disdainful look on his lustrous face.
“David Sylvis?” he asked me.
“Well, actually, I go by—” I tried to interject.
“David Eugene Sylvis Junior?”
I nodded helplessly.
“You’re a pillock, Sylvis. An absolute twit.”
Before I could gather my thoughts to reply, he’d made a tick on a clipboard he carried, and then he, too, summoned up a spaceship from nowhere and disappeared.
That was when I started feeding the cats before bed at night; and in the morning if I see anything odd, I deliberately look the other way until it disappears.