Kirk Nesset

Mr. X

Who is this? you ask.

Your mother studies the photograph, frowns. A portrait, bent-cornered, the man’s face angled in muted light.

Your father’s friend, maybe, she says. But no, she can’t say who it is, or why the picture’s in her box of postcards and letters. She hands the photograph back. Indeed you’re unsettled. The face seems familiar. Your dad has been dead for twelve years.           

You carry the box out with others. There are many boxes. Dozens and dozens. The van downstairs is filling.

In the kitchen she pauses. He died young, I believe, she recalls. Something happened on the bridge.

After your mother’s funeral, a year later, you move things again. To charity now, or to the dumpster, or dump. Trunks and chairs and armoires, broken Japanese fans. And boxes, of course: box after box after box. Sorting and carting, you locate the picture. You reel, feeling half of your life drop away. You study the features, the hair and half-smile, the blurred backdrop of meadow. You’ve seen this face in glimpses and glints your whole life, you believe. These eyes, this forehead and chin. In busy crosswalks at noon, a head or two down; on the train, or symphony balcony, the mall mezzanine.

You question uncles and aunts, cousins, half-siblings. Nobody knows who he is.

So you wait where you think he’ll appear. At the park, or the lake, or the bridge, on noisier corners and curbs during rush hour. You spot him in windows in town, if eyes might be trusted: reflected for an instant then gone. You work less, sleep more, think more, and grieve, the wind tearing at the pines in your yard. You grow less and less tethered. He inhabits your dreams now, which are more vital and sharp than your wandering waking. You grow careless, perhaps—and there goes your car and your job. The pageant you’ve been calling a living fades day by day; your assumptions unravel like the fragile fabric they are.

You walk miles most days and all night, now and then. You walk west to the airport as jets rise and descend, back past the truck docks and processing plant and strip malls and onramps; you pause on the bridge in the rain over the mottle-brown river. You drift thirty blocks to the house you grew up in (pyracantha, cedar porch, storm cellar, chimney), and stand gazing up as the man gazes down, framed in your old bedroom window, as fatigued by you, it would seem, as you are by him.

In the dreams you converse without words. What comes comes as transmission, unfiltered, shadowed. As modulations of presence that align with the heart and the lungs. In the shadow of the valley of sleep and not-sleep, things become odd. Sleeping and waking seem equal, in time; you’re not sure which is which, what’s what, who’s speaking. You have to remember to keep wearing clothes. You eat some days, if it suits—oats, nuts, dried berries, plums—grazing from fluorescent displays or aisles of bulk bins, which themselves seem dreamed, half-real, imagined.

And then everything tilts. You’re in a shrill, stolid bed in a hospital, planted there by a brother, or cousin. You’re dead for a week, two weeks, a month, dreaming and waking. Then home you come with your torpor, and temporarily, hunger, which gathers and wavers in flickers. You read, bathe, breathe, fade, gaze at the television. The man’s gone forever, you fear. Feeling returns, though distanced. You sit listening. Outside, the pines tremble, raining dry needles.

You do something like pray. You grow attuned to the wind. You wander the suburbs, and park, and the past, fully clothed; you ride back and forth on the train.           

Then one gray dawn, not quite living or dead, you see him, you think, in the fog, riding in.

You exit the train, eyes brimming. Indeed it’s him. White shirt, gray pants, a half block away, gliding, feet barely touching the glistening walkway. He’s slow but you’re slower still, as if moving in dreaming; the more you exert, the more languid you feel. You pass muddy gutters, bumpers and playbills, inhaling bus exhaust, fog. He’s aware of you, still well ahead; he stops, turns. Waits. And resumes. You creep along up the empty walk, past the abutment, past the wet pylon and first giant girders, onto the structure: the bridge.

He waits at the railing, shiny wet stone, peering down. Cars hiss past with halos of headlights.

Who are you? he asks.

You look where he looks, peer where he peers, scanning the turbulent river. Stumps and hubcaps bump along on the flood. You see buckets, wheels, bodies of cattle. An uprooted latrine. You see sections of roof, neatly shingled. You don’t know how to respond. With words, or without.

He draws a leg up, and with a push, stands on the railing. Swaying, half-smiling. He seems to invite you to join him. Without hesitation, you do.

Somebody honks. You stand facing each other.

Everything you’ve ever thought is wrong, incomplete, he seems to infer.

Below, a ship appears, laden with spice and fruit and tobacco. Your mother rolls beside, to the left, amongst waterlogged cattle. You sway in the rising rose-colored fog, a few feet apart, gripping the gray steel cables. If he says step off, you will. If he jumps, you will follow.

But things aren’t ever simple, whatever the height, or depth, or level of peril.

Who are you?  

The morning is clearing, sun cutting through, the sky-blue puddles aglow now. Words, yes, are commerce. The unspoken needs to be said, and will emerge, when it does, in iridescence and shadow.

You might say a voice comes, when it does, his and not his, yours and yet not, vowels tinted blue. A voice from the place where you cross, blur, intersect, where there’s no Mr. X and no you, a place like this place on the bridge in the mist, which might indeed be your bed, or the mirror in the bedroom at home, the eyes not his now but your own. A voice saying, not saying, Find the beloved in each face you know, each thing of dust, and undo, as the tide wanes, and ships wend over sand, the pines writhing in the strengthening wind. 


You’re in a dim basement, ringed by the women you loved. They repeat the same questions. You try to respond. It’s hot. Your head rests on an octopod’s shoulder. The thing’s wide and tall, mottled, dull purple; its speckled legs bind your bare ankles. You’re naked, of course.

I wasn’t thinking, you answer.

Think now, your ex-loves respond.

Your brain simmers. The heat’s getting hotter. The octopod stares with extra-terrestrial calm. Nothing seems to be coming to mind.

You weren’t prudent, one woman offers.

Or decent, another adds.

Or judicious, or wise, cries the third.

Behind the three are three others—prescient, abstracted versions of these that you knew.

Blankly they gaze, unaffected by bias or heat. Their monochrome outfits are sequined. The sequins are eyes, probing, all-seeing. Between these and the three and the monster that holds you, thick, dark streams intervene. Hair, or kelp, maybe, and oily salt water.

I tried, you finally manage to say.

You gave me herpes! one woman screams.

And me!

And lied! screams the third.

Outside in the dark people yell to come in, seem to want to defend you—parents, magistrates, dead cousins, friends—but they’re washed out by wind, waves, the roar of industrial turbines.

Your former lovers confer. A kind of collective shudder occurs. You take in the rage and heat, the nodding snapdragons. What else can you offer?  You’re guilty, faithless masturbating cad that you are in your bony, slack-butted body, teeth stained, hands clenched, head bowed. It’s over. There’ll be no more speech, or stumps, or dying light, or hooks stuck in forearms, grills of passing cars. No more braiding and unbraiding of hair. Just a feathery litter of ash, and perhaps wind. And on the sidewalk, a pigeon, pecking at a plastic cocktail sword.

A suction-cupped leg encircles your neck now. In the monster’s limbs you feel yourself held almost tenderly.

They’ll give you chance, the monster whispers.

Someone’s shouting outside. Let him go!  Let him go!

I don’t want a chance, you whisper back.

Your loves have merged with the judges. They stand assembled before you, winking with sequins. They’re about to pronounce, read something written. The wind howls. The monster’s grip tightens.

In the secret depths of your heart you know all of this serves, and is good. Live, lose, unlearn, evolve. You’re not a bad person, however flawed. But in the deeper secret depths of your heart you know nothing is firm, or matters at all; good isn’t good, bad isn’t bad, the transcript they hold will dissolve; and in these million last moments even the words you now hear, even this fleeting gloss on a note to a non-existent self portrait will melt, vanish, burn with the building, ignited by truth, or the mob, by retreating armies. And this thing that you are, yes, will endure, empty urn that it is, choked and squashed and cut into stars, beyond outrage and blood, beyond the vagaries of omniscient juries.

Kirk Nesset

<em>Edit Fiction</em> Kirk Nesset

Kirk Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, and a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver; his book of poems, Saint X, appeared last year. He is recipient of the Drue Heinz Prize in Literature, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His stories, poems and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Agni, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College, and is writer in residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany). For more information, visit