Sunday, December 25 - Christmas Day

Advent 2011

The Typographical Man

"Tell me again," Manny said.  He twirled his pen between his fingers.

The interrogation room was half-dark.  A single-shaded lamp hung crookedly from the ceiling, providing spare illumination.

"Tell you which thing?" the prisoner said.

"Well, for starters, what were you doing on church property?  That's what got you arrested."

The prisoner stared at him, his eyes half-lidded and cold.

"You won't believe me," he said.  "Nobody does."

"Try me."

The prisoner cast his eyes at the floor, shaking his head slowly.  He cracked his knuckles and took a long drag on his cigarette, making its tip glow bright red.   The jaundiced light emanating from the ancient bulb overhead gleamed dully off of the twin metallic studs in the man's ears.

What a great way to spend Christmas Eve, Manny thought.

The prisoner exhaled a thin plume of blue-gray smoke.   He rubbed his eyes, stubbed out his cigarette, and stared up at the ceiling.
"Let me think for a minute," he said.

"Take all the time you want," Manny said.

Manny had agreed to take the Christmas Eve shift again because his friend Ben had been assigned the duty this year.  Sandra, Ben's wife, was in the hospital with a recurrence of breast cancer.  Bone metastases, the doctors had said.  Spread all over.  Ben didn't ask Manny for any favors - he never would, Ben was just like that - and they didn't talk about it out loud, but they both knew that Sandra would almost certainly not be here next Christmas.

It had just seemed like the right thing to do.

He almost got lucky.  The only call he'd gotten all night was this one - a bald, half-naked tattooed guy caught trespassing on church grounds.  He was a street person, shirtless and shoeless, dressed only in gym shorts.  But the cops knew the city's usual collection of vagrants and thieves and addicts and hookers, both male and female, and no one had ever seen this man before.  It was like someone had simply dropped him out of the sky.

And then there were the tattoos.

He had thousands of them.  They covered every square centimeter of his skin - at least the parts that Manny had seen.  What was unusual was that there were no pictures of any sort, just words.  The man was literally covered in verbiage.  The other odd thing was that there weren't any sayings - no lines from Tupac, no obscure song lyrics.  The tattoos were just random words, in many languages and a hundred different fonts.  The arresting officer, Mike O'Malley, was a beefy Irish street cop with a crew cut and eyes that looked like twin chips of Coke bottle glass.  O'Malley liked nicknames.  He had one ready for the tattooed trespasser when he brought him in.

"I got the Typographical Man here," he had said, roughly shoving his cuffed prisoner into the interview room.  "Broke into a church. Can you imagine? Breaking into a church on Christmas Eve.  No ID, no history.  And here's the really weird part:  no fingerprints.  Like they were burned off, you know?  Fingers as smooth as porcelain."

O'Malley had then closed the door, leaving the two of them alone.

Manny glanced at his watch.  It was a little past eight-thirty.

Amy and the kids would be through with dinner at her parents' place by now.  Jeremy and Mimi would be running through the place like maniacs and Big Jim would be flipping them over his head in that way that always terrified Amy.  Soon, Amy's mom would finish clearing the table and begin trying to herd everyone into the den to open the presents.

He could hear the discussion as it wound up once again.  Big Jim just couldn't help himself.  He'd always wanted Amy to marry Raymond.  Manny had never even met Raymond, but he knew all about him - how long he and Amy had dated (three years), what Raymond did for a living (heart surgery), and where he lived (the Landings, in a gargantuan castle that Big Jim liked to call the Biltmore South).

Where's Manny?

At work.

On Christmas Eve? Isn't he a detective yet?

The Typographical Man scratched the back of his head.  The letters on his hand were in a gothic script.  It was different from the lettering on his scalp, which seemed Arabic, or the lettering down his neck, which looked like the Hebrew alphabet.  There were others, in Greek and Cyrillic as well as other forms of lettering Manny had never even seen.

"Where did all the tattoos come from?" Manny said.

"Where did your nose come from?" the Typographical Man said.

"Look, I was born with this schnoz," Manny said.  "Nothing more complicated than that."

"Same answer," the Typographical Man said.

He grinned.  His teeth gleamed.  His incisors were studded with diamonds.

"You're a real piece of work," Manny said.

"So are you.  We all are, in fact, truly miraculous."

Manny shook his head.

"You know, I don't want to be here any more than you do.  It's Christmas Eve, and right now my father-in-law is telling everybody in my wife's entire extended family about how his daughter could have been married to some rich guy she used to date, right there in front of our kids, and I'm sitting here at the police station while you play mind games with me.  I know that all of this probably doesn't mean Jack to you right now, but it's important to me.  So can we get on with this?  You're wasting my time."

The Typographical Man frowned.

"I'm sorry," he said.  "Didn't mean to do that."

Manny blinked and rubbed his eyes.  It looked for a moment like the words on the Typographical Man's skin had moved, wavering for a moment before settling down again, like an old-timey television signal when the antenna wasn't quite right.

Getting tired, Manny thought.

Manny motioned to a pitcher of water that squatted in the center of the table.  Condensation beaded on it, glistening like tiny jewels.

"Water?" he asked.

The Typographical Man shook his head.

"So level with me.  What were you doing in the church?"

"Praying."

Manny slammed his palms on the table.

"Jesus!" he said.  "Are you gonna work with me or what?"

The Typographical Man glanced up at Manny.

"Okay," the Typographical Man said.  "Call me Phillip."

"Phillip?"

"That's my name.  One of them, anyway."

"Okay, Phillip.  At least we've got that much.  Do you have a last name?  Any ID?"

The Typographical Man shook his head.

"You have no last name?"

"I don't.  We could make up one, if that makes things easier for you.  Smith would be fine.  Or perhaps Chan or Lopez, if you want to get a little ethnic.  But technically, no.  No last name.  Just Phillip.  And I have no ID.  In fact, it would be a problem if I did, as I have no pockets."

Manny sighed.  He knew right then that it was going to be a long night.

"I told you that you would not believe me.  Officer O'Malley sure didn't."

"Not many street people break into churches just to pray."

"Okay, first of all, I didn't break in, okay? It was unlocked.  Second, I was actually praying when O'Malley arrested me.  You can ask him.  But someone saw me in there and didn't like the way I looked, so they called the cops.  Third, I'm not a street person.  I'm just a person.  In many ways, a person like you."

"Okay, let's say you were praying.  I'll give you that.  And I'll accept the idea that you're not a street person.  But if you're not a street person, where do you live, Phillip-with-no-last-name?  Where did you sleep last night?"

Phillip was silent.

"Phillip, for God's sake, answer the question!"

The Typographical Man looked up at Manny.   His dark eyes seemed to go on to eternity.

"I don't sleep," he said.  "Not ever."

The bulb overhead flickered a little bit.  It was after nine-thirty now.  Manny had completely missed dinner.  Amy would be heading back home soon.  Of course, her dad would help her load the presents and the kids into the back of the minivan and would remind her once again about the opportunity she had missed with the rich, handsome,  all-powerful Raymond. 

Manny wondered if Amy ever thought about Raymond on her own on nights like this.

He hoped not.  Manny sighed.

"Listen, Phillip, I'm going to make this easy on you.  If I put you in a holding cell, looking the way you do, those guys are going to beat the hell out of you.  I'm a nice guy, so I'm going to try to avoid that.  We'll get a psych evaluation.  I think we can get you off on the trespassing charges that way.   Maybe they can get you a bed to sleep in for a couple of days, get you back on your meds, and we can get you on your way.  I know you're not from around here.  All I ask is that you level with me.  Tell me what you are doing here, where you're from, and where you want to go, and that will be a great start.  Capisce?"

Phillip was silent.

"Phillip? You've got to give me something to work with here."

"You're not going to believe any of it," Phillip said at last.

"I believed you about the praying."

"Okay.  You did."

"So level with me."

The tattoos moved.  Manny was sure this time.  They swirled on Phillip's skin, rearranging themselves, the letters forming words and the words forming thoughts and the thoughts forming sentences.

Phillip grabbed Manny's hands in his own.  His grip was dry and firm and warm.  Not just warm, in fact.  Phillip's hands were blazing, incendiary, the heat flowing out of them like molten lava.

The words along Phillip's arms were swimming about like fish in an epidermal aquarium.  Manny could feel lines of electrical force radiating through the bones of his hands, traveling along the phalanges and metacarpals and through the carpals into the radius and the ulna, vibrating with pent-up energy.

There was a strange magnetism between them.  Manny could not let go.

"What are you doing?"  Manny said.

"Helping you see," Phillip said.

The words flowed through their clasped hands and into Manny's soul.

Manny was not certain if Phillip had actually spoken or not, but he heard the words just the same.

"For I shall give you wisdom, which all your adversaries will not be able to resist," the voice said.

It was at that precise moment that Manny blacked out.

When Manny woke up, he was still sitting up, but the room was completely dark.  It actually seemed devoid of light, as though all illumination had been sucked out of it.

The light overhead flickered and came back on.

Manny was still seated at the table in the interview room, but now he was alone.  There was no Typographical Man.  Even the water pitcher had vanished.  The room was barren, empty, as if it had been sterilized.

Manny looked at his watch.  It was after midnight.

Christmas Day, he thought.  And I'm still here.

He imagined Amy in the dark, alone, thinking of Raymond.  Thinking of how her life might have been different if she had married him, of the things he could have given her that Manny could not.  And the weight of these thoughts squeezed Manny's chest like a vise.

I've failed her, he thought, pulling on his overcoat to leave.

It was then, out of the dark, that he felt the gentle pressure of a hand on his shoulder.

"There are so many things that you need to understand, Manny," a familiar voice said.

Phillip's voice.

Manny could feel the words thrumming in his chest once again.  A torrent of images and emotions flooded into him, washing over him like a tsunami. 

Manny could not process it all.  He felt like he was drowning.  His eyes closed.

Suddenly, everything was quiet.  It was as though someone had simply turned off a spigot.

Manny opened his eyes and gasped.  He clawed at Phillip with both hands, finally wrapping a desperate arm around Phillip's tattooed neck.

"What the..." Manny said.

They were floating high over the darkened city.

It was as though everyone else had left the world.  The streets were empty.  The silence was thick, viscid, an invisible fog blanketing anything and everything.  Not a single cricket chirped; not a single car horn blared.  Overhead, the stars stared down at them, cold points of light scattered across the vast firmament of the heavens.

"How is this happening?  Am I dreaming?" Manny said.

"Do you think this is a dream?"  Phillip said.

"I'm not sure about anything right now."

Phillip smiled, thin-lipped.

Suddenly, they were on the ground, standing in an alley.  There was a bundle of rags piled against a brick wall, next to the dumpster. 

And then the pile moved.  With a shock, Manny realized that it wasn't a pile of rags after all.

It was a man.

The man was ancient. He was toothless and shivering, his eyes closed.  Gray hair hung in coarse ringlets framing his bearded face.

Manny remembered that face.  He'd seen it in another alley, an alley just like this one, many years before.

Manny took off his overcoat and covered the old man.  The old man's bleary eyes flickered open and he smiled.

"Thank you," the old man said.

It was Phillip's voice.

And then, just like that, they were in a classroom.  It looked a lot like his classroom in second grade.

Actually, it was his second grade classroom.

Mrs. Heery was at the chalkboard with her glasses at the end of her nose.  She was talking about Patrick Henry's role in the American Revolution as she wrote, her hands covered in chalk dust.

But Manny wasn't looking at the teacher.  Instead, he glanced over at Robin Settles, the little girl sitting next to him.

Robin was crying, her dark hair hanging in her face.   She was quiet and unobtrusive, not wanting to draw attention to herself, but the tears flowed nonetheless.

And then Manny saw the bruises.

Robin's arms were a mottled aggregation of blotches of black and blue.  There were other things, too - round and well-circumscribed, a few of them freshly red and raw even as others had faded into dark, unmentionable scars.

"Robin?"  Manny asked.

The little girl looked at him.

"I have some Oreos.  Do you want one?"

Robin nodded, drying her eyes with her sleeve.

"Thank you," she said.

It was Phillip's voice again.

And then they were gone again, flying high over the city.

"Robin died in the fourth grade," Manny said quietly.  "I had forgotten about her."

Phillip's face was grim, his jaw set.  He said nothing.

Manny realized that they were standing in front of Our Saints Hospital.

The hospital, a monumental edifice of steel and concrete, towered in front of them.   Fluorescent lights shone in every room.  Some were brilliant. Others were washed-out, dim and flickering.  A few had been extinguished.

 The two of them walked into a hospital doorway.  No one stopped them.  No one even seemed to see them.

"Where are we going?" Manny asked.

But, deep down, Manny knew.  He felt ill.

Ben was asleep by his wife's bed, holding her hand.  The room was oppressively dark.  The monitor LEDs glimmered red and green across Sandra's sleeping face.

Sandra's eyes opened.

"Manny?" she said.

Her voice was but a whisper.

"Hi, Sandra."

Her eyes flicked over to Phillip.  They opened wide.

"Is it time?" she said.

She was looking directly at Phillip now, her eyes transfixed.  She seemed to know him.  It was as though no one else was in the room.

"No," Phillip said.  "Not yet."

His hands grasped her own.

For the first time, Manny could clearly see the words as they rearranged themselves on Phillip's skin.   They seemed to glow, ever so slightly, as they spelled out a verse that Phillip knew so well:

I am the way, the truth, and the life, they said.

"Have faith," Phillip said.

Sandra smiled at him.  She grasped Phillip's hands in her own.  The verse on Phillip's arms intensified, the script brilliantly incandescent.  It illuminated the entire room.

"Yes," Sandra said in a calm, clear voice.

"Yes, of course."

And then the room melted away, and Manny and Phillip were gone.

In the blink of an eye, the two men were standing on a moonlit beach. Crescents of silver light glimmered over the whitecaps.  The ocean murmured gently to them.

Manny turned to Phillip with tears in his eyes.

"Why are you showing me all of these horrible things?  All of this sadness and pain?" he said.

"You miss the point," Phillip replied.

"There's a point?  Because I'm not getting it."

Phillip looked at him.  His dark eyes sparkled.

"You gave the old man your coat when he was cold.  You gave the little girl a measure of hope when all the hope had drained out of her world.  You gave your friend Ben precious time with his dying wife."

"Those things just seemed right," Manny said.

"Manny, you are a kind and generous man.  And you love others unconditionally, without expectation. You did a noble thing tonight.  And yet you had doubts," said Phillip.

"My father-in-law is always comparing me to Raymond.  I'm just afraid sometimes that I don't measure up.  Raymond is rich, and very successful."

"Kindness and compassion for one's fellow man are the true riches in life, worth far more than any amount of gold or silver," said Phillip.

 "Raymond also looks like a movie star."

 "And do looks mean everything? What did you think when you first saw me?" Phillip said.

Manny did not answer.

"One should judge a man by his character.  Possessions mean nothing.  Appearances mean nothing.  There is no substance to these things."

Phillip scooped up a handful of beach sand and threw it into the air. It caught the moonlight for a moment before disappearing into oblivion.

"No substance at all," Phillip said.  

He touched Manny's arm.  The words swirled and glowed.

And Manny felt the memories return.

The old man in the alley.  Robin Settles.  Sandra and Ben.

Something settled in Manny - an understanding, a subtle deepening of comprehension.

A quiet peace.

The two of them stood on the beach for a long time.  Waves crashed and hissed on the shore; stars glittered overhead in a bejeweled sky.

"It really is a beautiful world," Manny said at last.

"It is, isn't it?"  Phillip said, grinning. 

A stray moonbeam caught the array of diamonds in his teeth, sparkling there for a moment.

"Who are you?" Manny said.

But Phillip was gone.

When Manny awoke, he was in his own bed.  Amy was lying beside him, her arm draped over his shoulder.  He could feel her warmth, could sense the weight of her body against his own.  The vague floral scent of her hair filled his nostrils. 

In an instant, Manny was awash with love for his wife.

Amy's eyes opened.

"Merry Christmas," she said, smiling.

"Merry Christmas," he replied, kissing her gently on the forehead.

"The kids will be up soon," she said.

"I'm surprised they aren't in here already," he said.

 

"Last night go okay?  I'm sorry I wasn't there.  It's just that I promised Ben..."

"Hush," she said, placing her finger against his lips.  "It was fine."

"It's just..."

"The fact that you would even do that sort of thing is the very reason I married you, you silly man," she said. 

She kissed him back, on the lips.

"Look, it was important that Ben could be with Sandra last night.  And, anyway, wasn't that just great news?" she said.

Manny's brows furrowed.

"What news?"

"Ben didn't call you?"

Manny shook his head.

"Sandra's back in remission.  They repeated her x-rays after she was admitted and - well, something's happened.  They're not sure what.  But the cancer is gone.  The doctors sent her home.  It's a Christmas miracle!"

The first golden rays of the morning sun had begun streaming through the blinds.  The bedroom door burst open.  Jeremy and Mimi ran into the bedroom.

"Mom, Dad, get up!  Santa came!" the children squealed.

"Hold on, hold on.  Us old folks have creaky bones that don't work right.  It takes us longer to get up than you young whippersnappers," Manny said.

"Mom, what's a whippersnapper?" Jeremy said.

"Ask your dad," said Amy, sitting up and running her fingers through her hair.

"Hey, Daddy!" Mimi said, hopping into the bed. She wrapped her tiny arms around his neck. 

"I love you," Mimi said.

"I love you too, honey," Manny said.

It was Christmas morning, and everything was good.  For the first time he could ever remember, Manny was certain that he was right where he belonged.

He sat up, Mimi's arms embracing him, and said a silent prayer of thanks for Phillip, the Typographical Man, who reminded him of the truly important things in life.

"It really is a beautiful world," Manny murmured.

And he meant it.

With all of his heart.

- Mark E. Murphy

 

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