There is in our town a small man who licks sidewalks. We have none of us seen him firsthand, we know of him only through the police. That is, each day the paper in town prints a list of reports from our local police, and sometimes there is mention of a man up to something strange. Always he is described as small, of slight build. Often he is dressed in black. Many of us now follow our police reports closely, scanning for sightings of this dark little man.
The reports do not stop just at allegations of licking. Occasionally they make note of a small man in black singing in the middle of roads. Once he was spotted lying in a backyard, once sitting in a tree on Fairfield. And recently there have been reports of a man weeding along the highway into town.
It is true we do not know they are the same man, the one licking sidewalks and the one in the tree. We do not know for certain because always the man or men accused of these things are gone by the time police arrive. We are disappointed in our police. We are a small town—no place here takes long to arrive at—and we think our police could try harder. Just once they could catch this little man in the act.
I entertain my father with these sightings. My father is a great reader of newspapers, a follower of police reports on his own, and normally he would read the accounts for himself. But my father is lately dying of cancer. Steadily it is wresting the life from him, seizing his gut, leaching muscle and bone. My father now cries out late in the night, it leaves him little time for the news. He says, however, he does not mind if I read a few police reports aloud.
So I read to my father most days now. I sit by the window in the front room, with my father nearby in his chair.
A small man was seen crawling along Benton, I tell him. A man was seen sweeping Lawrence Road. And I stop then to offer an opinion. I tell my father I believe they are the same person, that all these accounts are really due just to one man. I point out the size of our town. I say as a percent of population there could not be so many men given to strange acts with public paving. I say I think it is someone new to town. And I add I would like very much to meet him, to see this licking of sidewalks for myself. I acknowledge, however, there are people in town who think it is more than just one man. I say we are of two camps here.
My father, not one to be swayed by public opinion, says he too cannot believe there are multiple men crawling along the ground of this town. But neither does he think it is a single small man. He is convinced it is just a person who has taken to reporting these things to the police, who severely lacks for attention, or who believes it is what he or she has just seen but who is, in my father’s view, batty as hell.
My father thinks it is also someone old and lonely. My father is old and sometimes lonely, but he likes pointing out others who are older and lonelier. It makes him feel not so much of either. It takes his mind off the dying.
So today again I open the paper. Well now, I say. Here is news. A small man in a black cape was sighted last night leaping from roof to roof.
I give my father a look. But he sits now, head down. I keep my eye on him, I do not glance back at the page. I have never, truth be told, needed the page. Well and here, I say. There is this. Today a small man dressed all in black was seen selling pies door to door.
I watch my father. I smile. I hope now he will look up and smile too. We will shake our heads, we will tell each other this time the little man has gone too far. We will say, what could that man be thinking? We will have ourselves a good laugh.
Keep reading, my father says.
Elizabeth Collison lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Her stories have appeared in North American Review and The Barcelona Review, and in 2015 Harper Perennial published her first novel, Some Other Town.