Brown didn’t really like baseball, but played in the Major League. He was white, had a mustache, and a pretty good build, for 40. He played outfield, which wasn’t the best, but still pretty good.
Brown kept to himself mainly, with no wife or kids. He had some family but they were on the other side of the country and often, he forgot their names and exactly how they were related. He wasn’t proud of this, but sometimes he bought prostitutes and frequented a high-end gentlemen’s club on the other end of town.
On these nights, Brown hired a driver who spoke to him through the rear view mirror. The car had a divider between the front and back, through which Brown and the driver exchanged familiar lines. It became a comfortable script for Brown, who was hopeful for something of note, something different, to lift him out of what felt like an otherwise meaningless life.
It was a Thursday night the story begins, that Brown first saw the writer. The others talked about the writer and there was a general understanding, to see the writer was a kind of death omen. No one knew what the writer looked like, but Brown was sure it was him.
They recognized Brown at the door and always waved him to the front of the line. He had a custom where he wore fake glasses and a black turtleneck, never his baseball cap or anything to identify himself as Brown. The bartender knew him by face, not by name, and asked Brown, the usual? To which Brown always nodded, lifted his finger as if to say something, but then thought better of it, and submitted to the same.
Then, Brown would half-turn on his stool to take in the scene, the girls. And they were all fantastic, like caged animals, wild and exotic, a million different colors. So Brown would have his drink, pay, and go pick one out.
On this day he spotted a man on the other side of the bar, a man he’d never seen before, but knew to be the writer. It was as if Brown had just entered a story, or fallen out of his own.
The writer was an old, beady-eyed man with skin like a toad. He reminded Brown of a creature in a children’s story, where the characters were all animals but wore clothes and spoke with funny, English accents.
The writer locked eyes with Brown, smiled a wry smile, and lifted his glass to Brown, as if to toast. Brown went cold and felt his mouth go dry. Tonight, he thought, better to just go home.
So Brown slid off his stool, stumbled a bit as he hit the floor, and brushed his way against the others standing in line, back to the driver. Brown got in the back of the car and gestured let’s go.
The driver closed the divider and Brown watched his reflection in the glass as the pane came down, his face divided across the cheek and lips, down through the neck, the neon light making a shadow play of Brown on the scrim. And in this moment, Brown had to reflect upon what kind of man he was, as he passed figures on the street with legs coming out of shadows, lips and handbags, figures pooling below streetlight lamps and telephone poles, unaware Brown even existed, watching them from behind the glass.
Brown felt like a cigarette and asked the driver to stop. He felt in his jacket for his wallet and realized it wasn’t a jacket he had ever worn before, it felt different. And there was no wallet, but a crumpled napkin with a map drawn on it, instead. He mouthed the street intersections to the driver: by the laundromat, across from a church, a spot circled in pencil.
There was a line of people waiting on the street and it had started raining, so they all had umbrellas where their heads should have been. He got in line and stood there, thinking what to say, and when it was his turn he said I’ve Come For The D. That was code for drugs, short for ‘dope,’ that’s what the others said. Brown felt for the cash in his pocket and waited, looked down at his feet, and realized he left his shoes in the car with the driver, and was standing barefoot on the wet sidewalk now, his feet turning black.
The drug dealer stood behind a metal grate in an alleyway beside the laundromat. The drug dealer’s aspect changed as he turned to Brown, and he seemed to step out of character when he spoke, pointing to the others in line, and said Do you really want to end up like them, Brown? Take my advice: put your money back in your pocket, go home, and don’t do drugs.
To which Brown felt ashamed and small. He left the line and sat on the stoop of an old Brownstone, in the doorway, out of the rain. He sat there and wondered if it was a sign from God, it had to be, and slowly began to rock back and forth, and cry. Then Brown steadied himself, got back in line, bought the drugs from a different dealer, and returned to the car.
He tipped the driver a large sum and gestured goodbye, and the driver hesitated, as if to say something or engage him further, but did neither, just disappeared. Brown lived in the country, and the only light came from a far-off barn on a hill. The driver now gone, Brown was left alone with the night sky.
Brown shakily unlocked his door and flicked on the light, expecting to see a dead body, or worse, the figure of the writer sitting in the dark on Brown’s recliner, smoking, drinking Brown’s Scotch. Instead, he saw nothing unusual, it was still the house he knew to be home.
Brown went for the kitchen cabinet, poured himself a drink, and turned the lights out, sitting in the dark, on the recliner, until he slipped off to sleep.
It was the sound of an owl he recognized, a hooting outside, that woke him near dawn. He knew it was near dawn without looking at the clock. And he sat in his chair listening to the hoots, a doleful sound which was funny, because he wasn’t quite sure that was a word, and Brown imagined the sound was the writer singing a siren’s song to Brown, soft and rhythmic, beckoning him to join.
Brown felt cold again, felt for his glass, got up, unbuckled his pants. He peeled off his socks and shirt, and went for the door.
Brown watched his bare feet step into the glow of the moon on his back stoop. He passed into the cool light, and now the sound of the hooting consumed him, it was all around. And he knew this was the moment to confront the writer and his fortune, the fate of his existence, all Brown was, all he would ever be.
He passed into a dark, shaded grove behind the shed: that’s where the hooting began, and he stood in the grass and felt the wet dew upon him, felt it start in his feet, felt it rise up his legs, the very frame of him.
And as he stood in the dark grass and looked into the blackness of the trees, he did not see an owl or the writer, the hooting just stopped. Brown could not think for the life of him who he was, or what he should do. While he had the urge to cry out to the darkness, to call it by name, no sound came from his throat. Brown was unsure what happened to him, or was he even real.
(An homage to Paul Auster’s story Ghosts from The New York Trilogy, 1986.)