Post Road Magazine #1

The Man Who Wasn't There

David Manning

When I was a child, my father countered my fears of the dark with this rhyme, paraphrased from a Hughes Mearns poem:

Yesterday upon
the stair,
I saw a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish that man would go away.

Whether my father intended to tease or comfort me, I became fascinated with the rhyme’s imagery, which only encouraged the lurking visions. It took many years for the man who wasn’t there to go away. But then, one night when I was living in San Francisco, he finally showed up. As predicted, he appeared on the stairs.

My wife Suzanne and I lived off 17th Street in a wood-frame clapboard dwelling perched on a hillside behind the houses that faced the street. To get there, you’d walk up 17th Street from Castro/Market, up a rising alleyway between two Victorian houses, up some concrete stairs through a weedy cactus garden and past a crumbling picket fence, and up a wood stairway that lead to the front porch shared by all four apartments. Our apartment was on top, so the front door opened onto another flight of interior stairs. It was cheap, relatively spacious, and charming. Our view spread like a toy train village across Castro Valley and up the opposite hillside. In back, the kitchen porch nestled into a Japanese plum tree that turned snowy white in spring and into plum jam in summer.

As a gay mecca in pre-AIDS days, the Castro was lively to say the least, but there was nothing threatening about the neighborhood. We certainly felt safe at night, either walking the streets or at home. Besides, who would want to make that breathtaking climb unless they had to? Sometimes I’d even forget to pad down the stairway and lock the front door before going to bed.
One night I awoke with the overhead hall light shining through the bedroom door and into my eyes. Suzanne was next to me, sound asleep, so it wasn’t a matter of insomnia or a trip to the bathroom or something. And we would not have gone to bed with the light on. The only explanation was the presence of a third party. But this was not possible either—I spent most of my childhood learning that there wasn’t really anybody there.

The man who wasn’t there had been a constant darkside companion in my early years. Turn out the lights and there he’d be, or not be, lurking in the dark. Sometimes, in fact, I wished he were there because as often as not his place was filled with some bizarre character from a cartoon nightmare. The trouble was, I wasn’t asleep; not truly a nightmare at all. There actually was a bear, or the vision of a bear, standing there at the foot of my bed holding a frying pan over his head, or a grinning wolf, or some other improbable creature. Once it was fish. My entire crib was filled with fish, all shining in the dark and flopping around. I’d scream, loving parents would come and turn the light on, the evidence would vanish, they’d point out the absence of anything unusual and leave; and there would be that bear again, standing at the foot of the bed about to bop my noggin with a frying pan. These visions lasted until about the age of five. Visions, not nightmares. I was too scared to sleep. All of them were there. Not something suggested by the shape of a shirt draped over the back of chair; these creatures glowed in the dark, fully formed and in living color. They lived in the dark. Even under the bed, where I sometimes looked in vague hopes of finding a nice safe void for my cursed vision. I finally decided that the problem was some genetic disorder organically implanted in my eyes. Until at least puberty, I slept with the light on and covers over my head. Over the years, I developed a technique for shrouding my head while leaving an air space to breath. Occasionally I’d take a peek into the dark just to see how things were going out there. Sure enough, there would be some luminescent shape slithering into position.
The man who wasn’t there was a more difficult problem. The light-and-cover technique took care of the strange visions, but the man who wasn’t there remained. He was more complicated. He could not be there in light as well as dark; though he didn’t come more often at night. He was always not there in a dark basement or attic. Whatever presence he had outside my mind existed in sound. A noisy fellow, he creaked the floorboards, rattled the windows, thumped on the air ducts, and scampered around the attic like a squirrel. Somehow, he always knew when I was alone. He never bothered to not be there in the presence of someone else.
Finally, for lack of evidence, I gave up. He wasn’t there. Until that night in San Francisco.

The hall with the impossible overhead light also contained the stairs leading up from the front door, with a handy light switch right inside. And at that particular moment a shadow was climbing up the stairs. This was not something I was seeing in the dark. For shadows, you need light. There really was a man upon the stairs.

Later, I was fascinated by how clear the choices were. In the moment that I realized someone was coming up the stairs into our apartment my mind instantly computed the alternatives and presented a decision: Either I could run into the closet and hide or I could totally freak out and go after the intruder with no ifs, ands, or rationales about it. The freakout was an obviously stupid, dangerous move. But the closet idea had to be discarded— some organic male instinct about protecting my wife. I couldn’t do that in the closet. And I could hardly wake up Suzanne and whisper “Don’t ask any questions, just follow me to the closet.” I knew she’d start asking questions. By the time I explained we’d be…

Anyway, it only took a fraction of second to absorb and analyze the alternatives. Much as it went against my intellectual grain, I chose the let-loose-and-run-amuck routine. I sprang to my feet and bounded toward the stairwell screaming: “Get out of here!” at the top of my lungs. Vaguely, I recall Suzanne sitting up and adding her accompaniment to my screams. Not having the benefit of my opportunity, however brief, to analyze the situation, she simply woke up and screamed. This confirmed my opinion that whispering her off to the closet wouldn’t have worked.

When I reached the top of the stairs, just a screaming lunge from the foot of the bed, I found myself standing in my underwear staring down into the astonished face of a youngish, not-totally-innocent-looking man. “You scared the shit out of me,” he complained. I didn’t feel I had to take the blame. “Well, you scared the shit out me,” I replied.

(I recall the time when, as a teenager, a carload of cruising punks tried to force my carload of cruising punks off the road. As their fender swerved deliberately at mine, I rolled down the window and asked them what the hell they were trying to do. The punk sitting in the other car’s shotgun seat—just a reckless few inches away—yelled back: “Pull over!” “Why?” I inquired. “So we can beat the shit out of you.” I yelled back, logically: “Why should I pull over so you can beat the shit of me?” They drove on.)

The intruder worked his way back down the stairs, asking if this were “2021 19th Street” or something; some address not even remotely mistakable for ours (4114A 17th Street). Still, I suppose he could have wound his way up the hill, up the alleyway, up the steps through the weedy cactus garden and past the crumbling picket fence, and up onto the front porch where he happened to find our unlocked front door, entered, turned on the light and climbed the inside stairs, all in the belief that this was 2021 19th Street. Late-night rendezvous were not all that unusual in our neighborhood. (“I’ll leave the door unlocked, just come on in.”)

“You have the wrong address,” I announced. I tried to be as stern as I could standing there in the kind of torn old underpants you shouldn’t wear to an accident. For some reason, I didn’t want to present him with the evidence of our actual address. It felt safer to cling to self-righteous indignation, a feeling I found floating in the wake of my freakout. He left. I locked the door behind him.

After calming down, I slept quite well. And have ever since. Admittedly, I was lucky. But this one relatively fortunate encounter taught me that the man who wasn’t there upon the stair was far more terrifying than the one who was.

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