Sonoma, California, writer James Hritz’s “The Men” is a surrealist barnburner that gets out the gate with a full pack of existential whatever, and brings it home with a sunsplashed psych-o-delic denouement that might be the ending to an unwritten subplot of “The Yellow Submarine.” At first you’ll be all, “Jeez, what’s up with all the unrelenting disassociation of the personal?” But this tale of retroactively requited love between a bunch of guys with one body, and a cellophane-wrapped bundle of latent probability, is like, totally gorgeous.
Part I: Hard to Parse
On the concrete — a dead man. Did anyone care that when he fell his legs snapped like carrots and that his blood ran slow like ranch dressing? People were interested — casually (onlookers) and professionally (la policía) — but care, not a chance.
Those that knew the dead man were surprised he had not leapt before. He had no one. No one who cared. Sure there were those that were invested, but always for their own self-servicing ends. One of these people was witness to the dead man’s death. But did anyone, did anyone…
No prints or DNA evidence were discovered in the man’s sixth floor apartment, from either the dead man or the presence (person) present as he fell. The reasons were twofold:
• the dead man had no fingerprints or DNA, and,
• the presence present was covered head-to-toe in cellophane.
Forensics drew dozens of vials of blood, examined yards of skin, drilled into teeth and marrow, but found no trace of identity.
Tenants told police the man’s name was Joakim Summer-Festival. The current building owner said the man had lived there prior to his purchase of the facility (which he acquired after the previous owner and all his documents had been burned in an off-site fire) ten years earlier.
The dead man had no documents on his person but in the apartment there were birth certificates for Mr. Summer-Festival and two others: Johnny Crackcorn and Li Xi Li. Unsure, the authorities placed him in the John Doe file and sent the body to the morgue.
Truth was, all four names (including John Doe) were legal, though not connectable to the decomposing flesh that was the dead man, now lying in a cold drawer at the morgue awaiting (patiently) his incineration.
The dead man was four men in one — and several more, actually.
Had the dead men’s complex been authored in the late ’50s, perhaps it would’ve been written that they had been transformed during a nuclear accident.
During the Great Depression each life would’ve been examined within a full novel of its own.
If their stories had been laid down ninety years before, it could’ve been said that the men possessed kaleidoscopity.
Three hundred years previously, they might’ve been said to be blessed by innumerable angels as foretold by a monk from his seclusion.
But the man (men) simply existed, barely quantifiable in any era as separate parts of one whole.
What kind of life did this collection lead? Were they a circus performer? Or did they spend hours reading serial crime fiction? Perhaps they spent hours talking to himselves? Did they have problems with alcohol? Maybe only one did, while the others demanded sobriety.
This collective of men were rather busy, despite their solitary existence.
The group breathed in oxygen and exhaled microwaves — they were contracted as a cell phone tower.
They ate bologna and cheese, later defecating mice which were donated to schools for classroom pets.
The rows of eyes watched internet pornography excessively in order to ejaculate independent film scripts.
In a boxed garden strung with hydroponics under halogen, multiple gardeners grew cans of minestrone soup, nicotine patches, biodegradable bullets, and peach-flavored condoms.
Impeccable intentions aside, it was a sad reality that some of these altruistic commodities passed through malicious hands (Regional Directors of Telecommunications, Sous Chefs, Casting Agents, etc.) on their journeys to those in most need.
The presence-in-cellophane was also an extension of a capitalistic need-desire seeking a value injection — i.e., there to steal as much as it could carry.
The entity called itself “Hyde.” It was a manifestation of simultaneity: It was the already-been, already-always-been, always-will, the present-as, the present-as-not, will-soon-to-be, will-never-be, and what-cannot-be-named contained within a five-foot-six human frame.
The cellophane kept all-possibility from spilling out and negating its existence.
“Hyde” was an entity which did not mean harm but had some bills due and could not let its influential stepfather (a judge of sorts) know how much trouble it was actually in.
The entity-presence was a castaway yet forever being watched.
“Hyde” had climbed in the collective’s apartment via the fire escape while the men were out stocking up on bologna. A small creature, the presence was able to snoop around without making much noise, although in a short time there was to be a verbal confrontation.
Long existing on the edge of hunger, “Hyde” was quickly drawn to the garden in the living room. The entity-thief plucked a can of minestrone from the nearest plant growing beneath the halogen lights and observed the improbability in its shining, cloudy hand.
Loosening a layer of cellophane between the shoulder blades, “Hyde” created a papoose and filled it with four tin fruits. A fifth can was to be carried out the window with whatever else could fit in its arms.
Of the many treasures in the apartment, most were too large for the presence to escape with. A number of extravagant souvenirs were too delicate to survive the rough getaway planned. A great bookshelf and several tables stacked high with tomes were also passed over (since books don’t usually fetch money at pawn shops) — except for one book, lying on a table near the window.
It was a book that appeared ancient: the binding was faded leather, around the edges short tassels had formed from usage. The pages smelt from afar like decaying orange peels (always a sign of a well-aged volume).
On the cover was a brilliant red opened hand. It was like someone was extending a hand from within the pages of the book to (failingly) halt “Hyde.”
Books, despite their inability to earn a reasonable sum, appealed to the thief mostly for aesthetic reasons. Those that it had managed to parse frequently left the presence wanting to read on.
There was no title. The entity opened the weathered cover and started to flip through the pages to see if the book was important — or if it would perhaps speak to some intangible mystery that the presence had once wondered about.
But the contents were mostly unintelligible. Sentences went on for pages without any verbs, followed by pages without any nouns, interspersed with mystifying voids.
“Hyde” puckered its lips after reading through several pages, terribly vexed.
“Put our journal down,” came a muttering voice which sounded as if a series of whipping winds were skirting between “Hyde’s” legs.
The two bodies stared at one another.
It was the entity-thief which appeared to be the strange one (as the men could not be viewed by normal vision) — and “Hyde” felt the eyes of the men scanning its frame from head to heel (a feeling it was long used to).
Still: Being scrutinized by appearance left the presence unconsciously vulnerable, and “Hyde” was now doubly susceptible (being now guilty of crime while also judged aesthetically). Meekly, the presence-in-cellophane cowered against the nearest piece of furniture, a table piled high with papers.
Perhaps on another occasion the men might’ve let “Hyde” slink back out the window without reproach, as they knew the cost of doing the manner of business they had entered into with so many less-than-saintly consumers — but something about instantaneous surrender preternaturally incensed the men.
“W—wait … I’ll give you back the soup, just let me leave. I don’t want no trouble.”
“You know what? You can have that soup. In fact, here’s some more.” And the men started heaving minestrone fresh off the vine.
Because of the cellophane, however, “Hyde” had very soft hands, like two catcher’s mitts, and the cans did no damage. The men stopped after the third container of beans, assorted veggies, and condensed broth crossed the room without causing any harm to the intruder.
“That was impressive.”
“I—I used to play wallball by myself for hours every day when I was younger. It was all I ever did, really.”
“Our pastime was always writing. Little stories about how the day should’ve gone or how we would’ve liked it to go. Sketches of people we observe from the windows. Most of these books here are journals filled with whatever we felt needed to be written down on that particular day. A lot of it is nonsense, but at the time it seemed relevant—important, almost.”
“So that’s what this book is about, then? I couldn’t understand any of it.”
“That one’s our latest journal. Our most private thoughts yet. We are truly coming upon some grand realizations about how and why we exist.”
“Sounds great, but how can anybody read any of it? It’s just a jumble of words …”
“How much did you read?”
“Not much. It’s not like I could make anything out of…”
“Not much! ‘Not much’ is too much! Trying to steal from us is one thing, but — our journal — that’s too far!”
The men spun around and grabbed a table leg from a pile of spare parts that had accumulated in the apartment. Brandishing the leg, the men approached “Hyde,” grunting. But only a few feet away, they stopped.
“We just realized that threatening you won’t do much good. With all that plastic on you, you probably could withstand a ten story drop.”
“Maybe. Probably not more than six floors though. There was this one time when I was trying to run away from my old boss, he had accused me of stealing some outrageous amount of money, and I had to leap out a window into a dumpster. It didn’t hurt at all, just a lot of vibration, but I was fine.”
“So this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to steal from someone, huh? Just like you were trying to steal soup from us, you son of a bitch!”
This time “Hyde” lunged for the window, but on the table where the book lay was an ornamental cactus on which the entity-presence-thief caught itself on a spine just above the hip that opened a slight tear in the cellophane.
Causing a spire of will-never-be to flare out with mutant velocity.
Launching the men out the open window onto the concrete below.
Part II: The Veil
Although “Hyde” had no memory of its earliest days, the presence had from moments after its birth been dangerously close to splicing itself into untenable pieces.
Wrapped in hospital swaddling blankets, the entity began to show its unfortunate stigma of instability. Its mother shouted at nurses and doctors from the adjustable bed as she witnessed her child’s uncovered face bubble and toil under its skin, flaring close to eruption numerous times.
From then on, “Hyde” was to see the world through fettered means.
One of the presence’s first memories, while peering through a flannel bandana, was the look on its mother’s eyes as she mentally assembled the virtues of cellophane (especially the promise that the polymer could lock in freshness).
The constraints which kept the presence alive had, of course, numerous side effects, most evidently contributing to “Hyde’s” short stature — which had subsequently allowed it to become a decent criminal.
More lingering than its height, however, was the disconnection the entity was to have with the world.
Even though “Hyde’s” mother tried to compensate for the considerable barrier (between her child and its worldly interaction) with tender and frequent hugs, it gradually accepted a permanent feeling of separation from other beings.
Always looking through fibers (even those as narrow as those which construct the layers of plastic holding itself together) at its mother’s face, at the pages of schoolbooks, at its bank account figures on an ATM screen, at the men, “Hyde” was never able to encounter things as they truly were — or could be.
Unfortunately, the most unkind fallout from its failed attempt at stealing a few cans of food was that the specific will-never-be that killed the men was that the collective and the entity-presence could’ve been great friends.
What never-could’ve-been were hours of laughter-filled conversation, as both were exceedingly lonely — and lonely individuals have the most fulfilling conversations upon the mutual recognition of pathos in one another’s eyes.
They might’ve become lovers just to feel the soft, smoldering force of another’s body wrapped in one’s own embrace.
It would’ve been convenient as well, given that “Hyde” was wrapped in prophylactic-like material.
But the innumerable probabilities of the men and the entity-presence’s shared-life-that-was-never-to-be all ended when the men hit the concrete.
Vanquished could’ve been the uncertainty of their daily search for but one kind heart to empathize but not pity.
Gone was the refuge of the way-too-late phone call after the threshold of melancholy is breeched.
Gallons of whiskey (Irish — which both treasured) slung back were never to be consumed, never to be fermented, never to be distilled.
Now neither could be allowed to forget ever feeling foolish after attempting to press one’s lips to or copulate with a daydream phantom whilst napping midday on the couch.
The resulting consequence from the will-never-be meant that a moment — when the two bodies could have finally ceased the brutality of slicing at one’s self internally with memories of better times and missed opportunities — had disappeared forever.
Forensics closed the investigation weeks later, unable to resolve the negative test results, unable to determine an identity. After saving some blood, tissue samples, the jawbone, and taking several ubiquitously grainy photos, they put the dead men in the incinerator.
The ashes were to be disposed of the following morning with the rest of the medical waste, but before that could happen, the entity-presence snuck into the police complex and stole them.
“Hyde,” too, had been launched out a window, but had survived with only a bruised backside as evidence to its involvement in the accident.
Further leakage from the wound was averted as the heat generated from the fissure had resealed the cellophane.
The entity-presence managed to slip away before the police arrived, sequestering itself thereafter in its own apartment for days afterward, afraid to go out, afraid of the power that it possessed, afraid of the judicial consequences, afraid of — afraid of —
Rapt with despair was “Hyde” following the men’s demise, but when it heard of the forthcoming disposal, the presence felt obligated and optimistic enough to forward reparation by spreading the remains in a scenic locale.
Even though “Hyde” did not know the collective, it understood that even average men deserve more than a garish lawn ornament to remember their existence.
Because what is a tombstone, really? Dates, full name, maybe a few words in memorium — that is all that remains for some as proof to their years on this earth: no conflict, no flesh, no laughter, no tears, no sense of purpose — just chisel marks in polished rock.
Dead souls never leave their lots, as stone angels cannot fly.
“Hyde” had once pondered if beings are only granted a certain, limited number of words to express themselves before they are caused to expire.
Even though the presence (by nature of its appearance) did not speak with others very often, it was always chose its words carefully, afraid that stammering might lead to an early death.
Now, again, “Hyde” had taken up this thought, hoping that it had not caused the men to vanish from this planet before they got to the most important things to say.
Of course, the presence, being unaware of the men’s collective existence, if its supposition were true, could not fathom the exponential figure of words its victim(s) might’ve had at their disposal.
So involved in this worry was the presence that it did not fully grasp that it was speaking its thoughts simultaneously as they crossed the greyness between the sealed space of its head.
The entity-in-cellophane carried the ashes to a poppy hill on the inland side of the Pacific.
The sun and the breeze oscillated warm and cool on “Hyde’s” brow.
While chanting solemnly words recollected during its days working for its most notorious employer (words which were said to grant the deceased access to superstitions known only on the other side of living), “Hyde” scattered the remains of the dead men.
Watching the ashes float from its hands, the presence added sighs as it thought about how handsome the men was (were), about how a two-day beard might’ve sounded when dragged across its neck, about the kisses never swapped, about long looks for no other reason than to remind one’s self of how lucky it was, about liberated passion long overdue for release finally allowed to spill bliss into every capillary, and about how it was all its own responsibility.
“Hyde” was not careful, therefore, to avoid depositing ash inside the blossoms.
When noticing its carelessness, the entity bent over, plucked a flower, and tried to fan the remains from the exposed crocus. The entity-presence fanned harder and harder, unable to remove the men from the flower’s innards, until suddenly the blossom leapt from its hand and took flight with miniature ochre wings, circumspectrally rising off and out of vision.
As the blossom ascended, words tumbled from it like acorns dropping off an antiquarian oak during the first great storm of spring, landing upon and around “Hyde” with dense, striking thumps.
But it was only words that fell — there was no force behind them to be voiced.
And a voice cannot be heard if there is not muscle to push breath out a mouth which wishes to speak.
Nevertheless, it was a marvelous sight: the (seemingly) what-never-could’ve-been becoming the present-as-already-always-just-happened.
The presence might’ve mused at length about what a poppy-blossom bird ate, where it nested, or what its mate looked like (mallards and blue jays are negatively paired, for instance).
But before wonder could consume the entity, an incalculable sacrifice — a deed allowing nature to flourish beyond its limitations — was conceived of within the cellophane and acted upon without pause.
“Hyde” clasped at its exoskeleton along the temples, pulling the polymer vigorously apart, screaming with ravenous exertion. Its thought dedicated solely to the task.
The cellophane stretched and strained until reaching the edges of the presence’s arms.
Then it ruptured and the presence raptured.
The resulting sonorous percussion sheared the whole of the hill — and every blossom took flight with silken orange wings into a sky so clear and deeply blue that one could almost detect the expanse of outer space, its dark void pushing that rich, azure hue closer to Earth.
With this noble fissuring, the blossoms finally had force behind the words for them to now speak. From high altitudes what was said could not be discerned by human ears.
But across the valley, the flutter of murmuring voices drew thousands of eyes to these daylight stars of rising poppy-blossoms climbing to meet divinity and supplant its place among the skies.
From the foot of the hills, however, the words bade forgiveness to “Hyde” for its attempted crime, to business associates fueled by avarice, to the men’s neighbors who had neglected a solitary heart(s).
Forgiveness was given to all, whether they deserved it or not.