I am publicy drafting a five-part short called “The Hang Man,” in which a practiced executioner – called “the dangler” or “the stringer” – loses his grip. He’s too old for his high office. He has been pragmatic, but his mind has largely become abstract. I am being a little liberal with grammar, and I’ve got a good feeling it won’t be to anyone’s tastes. Ah well. I like my little existential Western.
The Hang Man
Well, the rampaging sons of the widow James—
Jack the Cutter and the Pock-Marked Kid—
had to stand naked at the bottom of the cross
and tell the Good Lord what they did. – Tom Waits
Son of the Widow James
The Dangler scritches, which is neither a brume nor color.
A ceremony in the deep of him, none see. A deep old in his fingers And slow A bone pencil aches and Hangman eyes sting as do yours and mine but he will not sleep until it’s through. And, anyway, he has been thinking. Thinking how there lacks … something –, there lacks—he thinks (grumbling “ahshit,” and then, – resigning).
Lost it again, he thinks.
He eyes his lemon drink.
“—again,” he thinks aloud again. And his murmur is like glutted thunder, and he is all too aware of his margins, waxing poetic. They do that sometimes.
Miss Amber graced him it—the lemon-water, not the poetry; she is the sheriff’s daughter, named for her eyes, and … – and … —his rime is both cataract and the color of milk—and then his pencil breaks.
Until the wayWord wound-up in the gloss of his work, the dangler’s lines were straight. Etched-in, descending from the wet-bough sketch by-six-by-four-feet-by-four to drop a man of thirteen stone into an ampersand. Now the cracked pencil tip mars like stray punctuation, like grit or eraser-shaves come between his conscious stream, signs of intimate error that stain the back of his hand. Outside, the weathervane is creaking to the west.
And through the large glass facade of his office, everything out-there is wartercolored and in-nighttime. His vision is poor. Wind kicks up the dust where the ghosts of the town scuffle, and there – he grumbles – “in’t a soul but mine to see them.” Their faces paper the walls of his workshop, ancient posters as brittle as straw; many of them the only pictures for which some have ever posed. A sedimentary memorial. The new layers plaster the old, the oldest faces forgotten. Over time, even the dangler forgets. So many look the same. Dirty faces, gaunt, dark-haired, scraggled. Faces made mean by fault of being born wrong. They are might-have-been mayors and priests staring out.
And that one in the foremost is of this boy—not as of his portrait, of course, but once-on-a-time – distantly, years since—who dared stare back, who had never looked on a dead thing yet.
They stared him cold. A dozen eyes from behind the wall. Little windows of paper fluttering.
The doorlight washed in wet and bright and spread like inksplatter, as if God Almighty were shuffling papers and accidentally tipped over the sun. The boy is silhouetted in it, sharp planes and the brim of his father’s hat—maybe twelve-stone, the dangler remembers; hardpanner, he thinks, by the lank of him, his stance … — “Hey!-I said. You come out of your revelry old man!”— how the making of demands was such foreign verbiage, which is bred from desertspeak (which come out of grit and a desertheart, so it’s said).
Alright, says the younger stringer to the boy. “You got my attention, if you’ll have it,” and the hangman lay low the some-braided rope with which he wiled away the hour, then spits on the floor at the threshold. It marked the line between civility and threat. But the boy knew where he stood and where he didn’t. A good custom.
“This one, on the wall – Jack Darby” the boy says, but names lack that spectrum of color and shape of a picture, the deep-rooted corporeal math his mama bestowed, translating to fourteen-some stone and eight-feet of rope. “Mr. John Darby, I mean (“Ay?, – what of him?”) is – well, he is to be throttled in the next week. And – well I – … I (“You’ll what?”) — —(“My hospitality is wearing thin, son …”) I thought I , maybe, if – if you’ve any soul, that I could encourage you to do him right.”
Plenty of souls, the Dangler rustles. (Raw collar still a stain beneath even the Miss Becky’s fine scarf.) And the boy says, “I – I can pay you,” rummaging for coin, “but I han’t much incentive, maybe enough for a glass …;” the hangman fumbles with the noose.
Rope’s fibers are razor-sharp and can scratch subtle like a papercut. Calluses that form are different from you workmen; not unlike a musician’s. Discomfort in fine detail. A dull years-long ache becomes arthritic with old age. So, “you’re a little young, son,” the hangman sighed, and
his sandpaper bones
knotted and groaned
“—for Jack, that is. And only enough to burn the scare out—”
and the memory flutters a little on the wall.