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The Man in the Bright Nightgown, by Dennis Must

by Dennis Must
  

When I visited her as a boy, she'd take me into the woods behind their house and show me this secret lair she'd been constructing over the years out of limbs of trees downed in thunder and snow storms. It had a canopy of hemlock branches and chairs fashioned out of woven maple saplings and stones. A miniature bestiary of braided willow stems sat in its corner. I could stand up in the den. Aunt Evelyn couldn't. She was tall and rangy next to my Uncle, a squat Irishman with a balloon belly and an explosive laugh. Aunt Evelyn also shook like a reciprocating motor was wired to her limbs and head.

She'd lie down on a grass mat with a straw pillow. We'd be very quiet as she taught me how to listen to the sounds of the woods. At first I was impatient. Later I, too, began hearing the music. Like listening to a symphony. Only kinder. Then as I grew taller, she stopped inviting me.

Uncle Ed was a buffoon. I'd return to the house with her. He'd be waiting impatiently at their kitchen table. She'd excuse herself, follow him into their dark living room and shut the door. I'd hear a different music . . . harsh and brief. Aunt Evelyn singing and Uncle Ed interrupting for a chorus or two. Soon she'd reappear.

"Uncle Ed's taking a nap. We must be very quiet."

 Dwayne, my cousin, said she lingered one week before passing. They'd taken her to Cleveland Clinic where they cut a nerve in her brain to stop the trembling. It didn't work. She came home worse than when she went.

"We knew then it was just a matter of time," he said.

"Did she know she was going to die?

"Oh yes," he said.

"How do you know?"

"She told me so."

"Oh?"

"Claimed she could see him hunched over in the corner of our living room waiting for her."

"Who?"

Dwayne shook his head solemnly. "I was afraid to ask."

I didn't want to hear either.

"'The man in the bright nightgown is growing impatient,' she said."

"What else did she say, Dwayne?"

"Father lay alongside her on the sofa. That's where we made a bed for her last days. He asked me to leave and close the door. I could hear him talking and singing sadly to her. I heard him fidgeting about, trying to get comfortable on the sofa. But not a peep from her."

"How much longer?"

"When I went to bed that night, she was breathing peacefully. Sometime in the early morning, I heard a loud thump in the living room, like the mirror behind the sofa had fallen to the floor. I ran downstairs and found her curled under the glass coffee table."

"I'm sorry, Dwayne. She was my favorite person ever."

"Uh-huh," he mumbled.

"How's Uncle Ed?" 

"Father asks everybody: 'The man in the bright nightgown visit you yet?' then laughs like hell."

He caressed her with his pop-bottle mouth, I thought. The bright nightgown he traded for the black shirt and pants.

I ran to catch up with Dwayne. Out of breath, I stopped him just before he disappeared into Bell Telephone where he worked. "I'm sorry, but I must ask you something more about your mother's passing."

"Yes?"

"Was she at all frightened? I mean when she first told you a man was crouched in the corner of the living room waiting for her . . . even before she told you later what he was wearing?"

"She knew my father was waiting for her-but not this guy."

Outside Koppel, Pennsylvania, always after 10 p.m., he ran the back country roads. Nearly once a month we'd jump into my car and go hunting for him. 

One evening we drove over a gravel lane that eventually wound up at an abandoned sawmill. A crescent moon illuminated the woods on either side of us. We turned off our headlights. Shoes Pastore, sitting in the back seat, spotted him:

"There he is! See him?"

Perhaps fifty yards in front of us-this gangling figure, attired in black, ran alongside the road ahead of us. He moved in a leaping motion, dragging his left side. His head, totally bald, had a curious green cast to it.

"Get your cigarettes out, Daugherty," Shoes said.

The word among our high school friends was that you could entice him into a conversation if you offered him smokes. As our car approached, he darted into the brush. We pulled to the side of the road and shut off the ignition.

"I'm going to open the door." Shoes climbed into the front seat. "Turn the radio on. Get some nice music. Christ, he's human, ain't he?" Shoes lit up a cigarette.

The brush didn't rustle. We knew he was less than fifteen feet or so away from the car. Probably crouched down staring at us.

"We got all these extra smokes, Daugherty. Do you think we should deposit them here by the side of the road?" Shoes broadcast. "Ah, maybe we better not. It's supposed to rain."

Still not even the sound of a twig breaking. We could hear the crickets.

Frankly, I was hoping he didn't come out of the woods. Was he indeed real or something we had made up just so that we could sap power out of the fear we each had of death? Shoes had never seen him up close. Our friend Alexander had said he shared smokes with him, and the guy had no nose, no eyelids, a hole the size of a soda-bottle opening for a mouth, but no lips. One whole side of him appeared lame. And his right hand where he held the smoke-it looked like a claw. I asked Alexander what the guy's name was. "I call him Tom. Others say his name is Will."

"What'd he talk about?"

"Baseball. He knows all the batting averages of each of the Pirates. Loves Roberto Clemente."

"Did he talk normal? Like you and me?"

"Yes and no."

"Whadaya mean?"

"Well, we'd be talking when suddenly he begins announcing a baseball game like he was on the airwaves. 'Alright, now Clemente steps up to bat. He struck out in the fourth and grounded out to left field in the sixth. He's due for one, wouldn't you say, folks? Open your window, Aunt Minnie, just in case.'"

"You're shitting me."

"Honest to God. And all of us in the car start laughing. But he's serious as hell, announcing this fictitious game."

"Any expression on his face?"

"Like a shy woman talks with his back to you."

Shoes and I weren't having any luck. He watched out the back window.

"Go slow, Daugherty. If he comes out of the brush we'll turn back."

"Tom ain't gonna show," I said, and headed home.

Locals referred to him as the "Greenman." The lore was that he was helping his father cut hay one afternoon under high voltage lines that scarred the country landscape. A violent thunderstorm came up causing one of the lines to drop, and it landed on Tom. Near fried him, they say. His old man carried him home and waited for him to die. But nobody in the county ever saw the funeral. After a while folks just forgot about it. Until a dozen years later stories begin surfacing about this strange figure loping old cow paths under the moonlight.

Tom was now in his forties.

I sat in the back seat of a car the night I saw him up close. Six of us all together. No girls were out cruising around at that hour, so somebody suggested we go to Koppel and smoke with the Greenman. Pete said, "Smoke hell. Let's get him drunk." We all began laughing, but Dantonio said, "He's human, ain't he?"

"How's he going to get a beer down that soda-bottle mouth of his?" I asked.

"His baseball game will be all fucked up if we get him drunk . . . like Bob Prince, smashed," someone else suggested in reference to The Voice of the Pirates on KDKA. 

We spotted him loping out near McConnel's apple orchards where all the locals bought their apple butter and cider in the fall. Like before, he heard the car and veered off into the woods. We stopped, swung open all the doors and began lighting up. Then Pete cried out:

"OK. Bring out the beer, guys!"

You could hear the bottles clanking together. "A real thirst quencher!" Shoes hollered. We could all visualize Tom still suffering the after effects of frying up in the meadow that Indian summer day. "Christ, I was sure thirsty!" Alexander chimed.

Damned if we didn't hear the brush rustling and this pathetic figure in black shirt and pants hop out toward our car. He had his bald head turned away from us and he dragged his left leg and arm. Within a length of a man's body from the car, he stopped. His face still looking back into the heart of the woods.

"Could we offer you a beer, Tom?" Shoes spoke.

"What kind?" The voice was high pitched. Like somebody was squeezing his larynx.

"Fort Pitt." It was the brand the Pirates sponsored.

"Thanks," he said. Shoes placed an open bottle in his claw. We watched his green-cast head bend back until his face was flat with the moonlit sky. The beer spilled across his face and lidless eyes, as some of it found the hole . . . we heard clicking like an exotic bird might make. He drained the entire bottle, burped just like we always did, then handed the empty bottle back to Shoes . . . his face still disguised.

"The bottom of the sixth and Clemente steps up to the plate. Koufax has his stuff today. Clemente popped up in the first, got caught in a double play in the third, and is ready to break this game wide open. Open your window, Aunt Minnie!"

"You want a smoke, Tom?" Dantonio asked.

"Sure would like a smoke," he said.

The claw hand reached back toward the car again. Pete handed him a lit cigarette.

"You out for your run?" Shoes asked.

"Yessir."

"You run every night?"

"Not when it rains."

"You run in the daylight?" Shoes was becoming too forward. I nudged him.

"Don't run in the daylight."

"Why's that?" Shoes wouldn't stop.

The claw reached back toward the automobile, hovering there. We could see he was still smoking. The cigarette must have been resting in the soda-bottle hole.

Dantonio gave him another beer. Again the face raised as if to be bathed by the moonlight, and we watched the amber liquid rain across it. 

"Like a cow pissing on his kisser," Shoes whispered.

We all started laughing. Tom quickly lowered the half empty bottle. And moved a step back into the woods.

"We weren't laughing at you," I said. "It's us we were laughing at."

"How 'bout another smoke?" he squeaked.

Shoes obliged. "Why don't you ever run in the daylight?"

"People."

"People?"

"Don't want to scare them."

"You don't frighten us. Does he guys?"

We all chorused, "No."

It sounded as if Tom made a laugh, reminiscent of the clicking when he drank.

"You want to go for a ride, Tom?" When Shoes said this, the rest of us shrunk back in our seats, jabbing him hard. I, for one, didn't want the Greenman in the car. No one else did either, except fucking Shoes. He's the same one who would holler to the whores in town, offering fifty dollars if one climbed in the car with us.

"Afraid of automobiles," he said.

"Do you like women, Tom?"

Alexander was driving. I nudged him, motioning he start the car.

Shoes climbed out with another opened beer and moved toward the reclusive figure. But Tom shot back into the brush like a deer. Shoes yelled into the alders, "Didn't mean to cause you any alarm, sir. Your beer's here. We'll be heading off now. Thanks for talking to us. Arriba! Arriba!"

But the brush lay quiet.

"Why in the hell did you have to go off and hurt him like that?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"Inquiring if he liked women. Suppose he did? What in Christ's name could he do about it?"

"I was curious to see what Tom would say."

"Torturing the guy, that's what you were doing."

"We could pitch in like we did for the beer and treat him."

"To convince a whore to fuck the Greenman?"

"Your sister wouldn't even do that, Shoes," Alexander cracked.

Tom no longer emerged out of the woods, despite our devices of cajolery. None of our other friends saw him again either. Word soon got around that it was all Shoes' fault, who, in time, began to feel remorse for what he'd done.

"He seemed like a nice man."

"You hurt him," I said.

"If I were the Greenman and some clown asked me if I wanted a woman, I'd have stabbed him," he confessed.

"We don't know the half of it.""Whadaya mean?"

"The high voltage line might've cooked more than his face."

"Jesus . . ."

"Why do you suppose he imitates Bob Prince?"

"Why?"

"To be like the rest of us assholes. Of course he wanted a woman. Whadaya suppose goes through his mind when he looks in the mirror?"

"All the mirrors face the wall in his house."

  "Or climbs out of the bathtub?"

"Can you imagine, Daugherty?"

"Nope."

Father left to take his morning trip to downtown Harmony to pick up his newspapers and stop at the Diamond Cafe. An hour later he found Mother curled up under the ironing board. But the kitchen chairs were pulled away from the table. And her apron that she always wore over her house dress-it lay crumpled on her black pumps that sat neatly paired against the wall.

Pap laughed. "Well, he got her moving where I never could."

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"Tom must have pulled the chairs away from the table."

"Were they pushed against the kitchen walls?""Askew at all angles. Like the two of them were fandangoing."

"How do you know it was Tom?"

"Who else could put a smile like that on the woman's face? He's waltzed more of 'em away in this town . . . first your Aunt Evelyn and now your mother.

"Probably sat crouched in our bedroom all night for all I know-in his bright nightgown."   "Why would she have taken off her shoes, her apron?" I asked.

"If you could have only read her face, Son."

Strange how the Greenman, once a curiosity among the youth of the community, had bored his way into our town's darker psyche. Where earlier he'd run the country lanes at night, he now loped its unconscious. And why the men ascribed to him the sexual powers they believed they somehow lacked.

It clearly wasn't Jesus as one might expect, crouched over in the corner waiting to take the women of Harmony away forever. Jesus was fine being a walker for the day-to-day affairs, but his power as a dancer? Somebody darker, more sinister had to step upon the stage. Old Tom fulfilled that role well.

Until he took my brother. Jeremiah came back a morning after helping neighbor men build a deck on one of their new tract homes. He was moving over the backyards towards his house to join May, his wife, for lunch, when she looked out the kitchen window to see him thrashing about down among the trees in a grove he'd left uncleared at the base of his yard.

"I'll make it into our children's hide-and-seek park," he'd promised. "Build them a little den in here. Kids need a woods to play in."

And there in the mid-afternoon sun filtering down through the ailanthus and maple, whirling about in his children's covert, falling against one tree, then recovering and racing toward another, danced Jeremiah-as if he were trying to find somebody to hold fast to, to snatch him from the macabre tarantella. 

Opening the screen door, she rushed down the back steps toward him.

Jeremiah bucked then dropped, as if shot. She bent over him.

"I ain't never danced with a man before, May," he said. "Damn ornery fool."

*  W.C. Fields saw him first. 

  

Dennis Must's collection of short stories, Banjo Grease, was recently published by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Blue Cathedral: Short Fiction for the New Millennium (Red Hen Press), Rosebud, Cortland Review, RiverSedge, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog-The Southeast Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Exquisite Corpse, Alsop Review, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge, Linnaean Street, and elimae. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

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