Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
Because it was once a year, it was special.
It always started with the music: faint, ethereal, and dancing just on the edge of perception. As the days got shorter, it would rise to become a constant soundtrack delicately underlying his everyday business. It was everywhere, this tingling elevator music perhaps only he could hear. Bells and angels. The excitement would build as he felt the rush, the anticipation, the want. In these late months of the dying year, he walked the world with a general lightness of being, a bright smile on his round face, and a shuffling dance in his step.
It was a magical time.
The old man sat snug under tight motel covers reading The Great God Pan and singing quietly to himself. His plump feet stuck up under the crisp sheets and rough yellow blanket like dunes in the Sahara, and that was just the way he liked it.
The place may be a dump, he had thought upon first entering the room, but they sure knew by God what a hospital corner was.
The bed was tight, he had "Color TV!" and there was a water stain on the ceiling looking like Jesus. Or Nixon. Outside, the wind shrieked and boomed, driving snow against the window in a fury of ticks and spatter. Inside, only the faint 30W glow from the reading lamp and the thin doorway of light from the bathroom cut the dark to mere dim. He always left the bathroom light on, the door always open.
Movement from the corner of his eye pulled his concentration from the grim elegance of the novel, yet the song on his lips stayed sweet and true. The cockroach twitched, questing, come up over the top of the ridge in a charge for glory. For little cockroach god, little cockroach country.
Hey there, little soldier.
It flitted among the small city of pill bottles on the nightstand with a clack of its carapace and the skitter of marching feet, fearless in its alien recon. Pausing briefly to examine the motel glass with his bedtime whiskey sour, and then a balled up snot-filled tissue, it skirted up to the edge and reverently contemplated the man, the mountain, the looming idol in his tight motel bed.
With an uncanny speed for a man of his age and bulk, he snatched the roach from the nightstand and popped it into his mouth. Now he was humming the song, vibrating the little guy as it danced across his tongue, its questing and spasmodic antennae tickling the roof of his mouth. He went back to his book, savoring the insect's panic and helplessness, would let it quest and lose hope yet awhile. Little chestnut, little candy cane, little treat and sacrifice. Little toy, little game.
Reading, humming his merry song, the windows rattled and the cockroach tickled, and all was right with the universe.
His mind flashed on that old commercial, the owl and the kid. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? One... two... CRUNCH!
The juice ran down the back of his throat, followed by the corpse, followed by the soul. Chestnut and candy cane, damn but he felt fine. Just like a kid on Christmas.
Awash in a mist of precipitation and blanketed in the shadow of an ancient evergreen tree, he stood grim sentinel, his time almost come. It was just about midnight on this pleasant little cul-de-sac in Anywhere America, Somewhere USA. The scene was a winter still life, an Americana wet dream from The Saturday Evening Post. Or perhaps, FEAR Magazine.
He loved dressing up. Being someone and no one at the same time was a special kind of magic. He had been doing this since 1958, and it never got old. But he did. In this, the year of our Satanic Lord 2019, he had come more and more to resemble the disguise. Was that metamorphosis? Ascension...?
He was legend... and God. Beloved monster, spectral visitor, old friend. He was called by many names, and though there were reports of his activities the world over, there were no actual sightings. He had never been caught in the act, no matter what the song said.
In summertime he was The Hot Dog Man, and for four hours a day standing was his business. He did not stoop, and when the day was done, he did not ache. He dealt in sugar and flesh, and his people loved him. They lined up far and wide, and Lord Satan how the money rolled in. Come September, as the sweet scent of autumn death prickled the ol' factory and danced on the tongue, as the chill crept in under the hood and the world came alight with fire, he would pack up and go. He liked to think the empty spot where his cart had stood under a summer tree—now just an empty waste under skeletal branches clutching at a gray sky—became a silent memorial, as empty as a grave, and his people would pass by and think of sweet summer, and they would miss him. Remembered as an icon of better days. Every year he considered retirement, that this year would be his last. But he would be back; he always came back.
Now, in the perfectly seasonal cold of a picturesque December night, he stood waiting for the last of the lights to go out. He shifted slightly from foot to foot, not in mounting excitement, but to keep the blood flowing. His circulation was not what it once was. He had to be spry... and silent. He was eternal. He was the goose over the grave. He would not disappoint. The children were counting on him.
The things we leave behind tell the tale.
After shutting down business for the year, after storage and paperwork and the settling of all summer affairs, the winter world was his oyster. The Hot Dog Man would retire to his cozy little house on his nondescript little street and set to work on his seasonal hobby, his true work. The music would come in time; it always did.
With his beloved leather bound National Geographic Atlas Of The World open before him, he would close his eyes, flip to a page at random, and point. By chance and by fate, he traveled the world.
Upon arrival in the town at hand, he got himself a place to stay and, if possible, a job. Both would be secured under a assumed name with false documents made up for the occasion. Forgery was just one of his skills, finely honed over the course of a lifetime in service to his hobby. The room was always shabby and out of the way, the job nothing spectacular, maybe some seasonal work at a mall or ringing a bell for charity.
And for days, sometimes weeks, he would walk the city's suburban streets, and the right house would find him as it always did.
From his spot behind the tree, he saw the last light wink out inside the house. Only the mellow orange glow of the streetlamps and the surrounding multicolored fairy lights now lit the silent world. He stood inside a snow globe, center of a dark universe. He re-shouldered his bag, his tools shifting slightly as they resettled.
The Hot Dog Man had afforded himself the gift of time, and he used that time well, always learning, always dreaming. He rode many hobby horses and had tens of thousands of hours of practice at each. He was an artist, and these more workaday skills were constantly honed and practiced in support of his art. The clockwork of the man made universe was an endless plane of intricate and fragile mechanisms, and to understand its workings was best done one gear, one tick, one spring at a time. He was a devil for the details. Besides forgery, butchery, taxidermy, sausage stuffing, and sculpture, he was an accomplished burglar. He could get in and out of most residences unknown and undiscovered, as through a magic portal.
The game was to visit the adults while not disturbing the children. Undisturbed at least until they woke the next morning to discover the grisly scene created by this unholy spirit, this capricious elf. It was his art, the decoration. It was the gift, and the gift was eternal.
He waited ten minutes after the last light went out, intermittently watching the second hand on his silver Rolex tick resolutely towards doom. He didn't care about the occupants' slumber. He only wanted everyone to be in their own little beds with their own little dancing sugarplums in their own little heads. He thought of slipping into his own, military regulation motel bed, a good book and a whiskey sour. His feet were cold, his head swam, his extremities had numbed. He felt... grey.
Walk away, old man.
It was time. He the beast come 'round at last. Snow crunched and squealed underfoot as he made his way up the line of trees beside the drive. He lurched, swayed, stumbled.
A stab of brightest agony struck hard and fast, felling the old demon in a deep drift of snow. Lightning coursed through him, the stab of a serpent's tooth, his heart gone supernova within his frail octogenarian cage of bone and gristle. His yellow eyes bulging shock wide, his yawning mouth a rictus in silent scream, he was drowning in icy wet and deep shadow, lost and helpless. Burning. This was his old friend catching him unaware. Father Time, the old bastard.
He lay akimbo, writhing, trembling, silently weeping in the shadow of the evergreen tree, the chilling wet soaking through his thick red pants and down his underpants, his skin frost kissed and yet lightly coated in sweat from eyebrows to asshole. He couldn't feel his legs. He tried to draw a breath, and there was nothing there. Paralysis, panic. In his death rattle and roll, a misshapen angel formed beneath him in the snow, the shallowest of graves.
Dark clouds sped across the sky, tattered black curtains made to dance in a foul wind, revealing in twisting absence the conspiratorial wink of a few sad stars and the face of the Blood Wolf Moon. The hunter well hid, now come as he lay helpless. Eyes wide and unable to blink, they filled to brimming with that spectral red light, awful and glorious. He was locked inside himself, locked up tight. Burning, freezing, silent. His pills, the bag, so far away. The moon, the Wolf, much closer now. It was eating him all up. Blood filled the world.
Visions of opulence danced in his head. Eyeballs on the mantelpiece, intestines strewn with care. Life was art, he a Renaissance man, and his gift to the children was perspective. The gift of scars. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. Ripples in the pool of the universe, pushing ever outward. It was a hard old world, full of fragile things and scary monsters. He showed them truth.
But what truth, what art was there in this? What story would his sad remains tell? Come morning the discovery of his old bag of bones and fat bag of wonders would certainly chill the heart and haunt the imagination, and he supposed that was something.
The things we leave behind tell the tale.
There was no music now, the merry-go-round wound down.
"Fuck... you," rasped The Hot Dog Man without breath.
It was a man, a shape, a hole in the world. It was a cloak and a wolf, and it sucked at his soul. Rusty gears clicked, and the second hand ticked towards midnight. He was falling in the dark, down a deep and narrow shaft, the far away red light fading, obscured by snaking clouds.
And so, into the belly of the beast at last.
A high pitched bark shot into his left ear, a concussive scream, a bullet to the brain. His head rang with it: pain, vertigo... and chimes. He hitched and bucked, and his heart kicked back into the rhythm of the world. Closing his burning eyes he sucked in a harsh breath tasting of ice and sick.
The dog sniffed his face, then stuck its tiny cold nose in his ear. He shivered violently with the thrill of it, but willed himself still and silent as he teetered on the edge of consciousness and exposure. His heart jumped and lurched and kept bad time.
"Come on, Misha! Let's go home," called a voice from the street.
Hidden in the bulk and shadow of the huge evergreen, The Hot Dog Man lay prone and terrified in his deformed angel at the mercy of a little rat dog. It was a froo-froo princess thing with a little bow in its hair, huge black eyes, and a muzzle of icicles. It regarded him silently, head cocked to the left.
The RCA Victrola Dog, a blast from the past.
A long, retractable leash bent around the tree and led far back to the lighted street. A bout of furious barking would surely bring its master, and that would be the end of all. The legend would die, the myth dispelled. There was no explanation for his presence here besides the obvious one, and no one over the age of six or seven would let him slide on that technicality. And the bag: not dolls or robots but a small computer for bypassing alarm systems, lock picks, surgical gear and hunting knives, zip ties and chloroform. And heart pills. Better maybe than socks and underwear, but not by much.
"Misha! Come, girl! Let's go home! I'm freezing to death." called the distant voice.
Doggie breath in his face, the little princess licked his cheek. Then it turned, and kicking up a small puff of snow onto his burning face, it cut and bounded its way back to the the light of the world.
The North Star winked from out of the black sky. That wink told him all may yet be well.
A little froo-froo rat-dog it may have been, but it was also an emissary of the Wolf.
"Thank you," he said to the moon in a small gruff voice, "for my life."
He lay still, counting slowly to ten and back again, listening to the jingle of Misha's collar fade into the distance. When he felt some little strength returned and the world was completely silent once more, he reached for his bag, thankfully felled close at hand. He dragged it over slowly, in soft shuff and slight rattle, and pulled open the drawstring top with trembling fingers. He found the pills, struggled with the cap, and after a muffled pop! shook out three and dry swallowed them.
Still flat on his back, he let the pills do their magic.
One last rodeo, one last ride. After this he was going to walk away, get warm, get thin, die happy. He could leave the story as it was, eternal and without end. Someone would have to take up the tale, and he had a few ideas. There was some dark community, some twisted avenues of talk and fellowship among the hobbyists, and he would find the right man for the job. That Wichita boy, perhaps, who seemed to have some talent but little focus.
Whatever lived inside him could be passed on, as it had been passed to him.
But first, the last ride. The Hot Dog Man rolled inelegantly onto hands and knees and then struggled painfully to his feet. He stood trembling in the dark, gathering what strength he could find. The Blood Wolf Moon shone down through its scrim of tattered clouds, snow swirled every which way in the shaken snow globe universe, and all was right with the world once more. He was feeble, but alive.
He kicked snow over the impression of the grotesque angel he'd left in his wake. Boot prints were a necessary evil (as was he, ha ha), an occupational hazard, but no need to be careless. And perhaps the falling snow would cover all and lend to the myth, the magic. There was always hope.
One last creep, one last work of art, then gone in a blink.
The nightmare created would be the only sign of his spectral presence in the wee hours of the morning, with the small exception of the empty plate by the fireplace and a few wayward crumbs.
Walk away, old man.
Without further thought or hesitation, The Hot Dog Man took one trembling, weak-kneed step forward, the song in his head faint and discordant.
Hark the herald angels sing.
It was past midnight, and Joy was way too excited, her mother fading fast. Every year with this. Oh, well, the thrill wouldn't last forever, and it was cute as hell. Exhausting, but cute.
"Mommy, I saw Santa. He was in the trees."
"Was he? Not on the roof?"
"Yes, he is, but not if you don't close your eyes and go to sleep. That's when the magic happens."
Joy scrunched up her face and evaluated this statement for truth or falsity. Deciding to give her mother the benefit of the doubt—tempered by the fact of many presents come morning—she cuddled in and closed her eyes.
"Okay, goodnight, Mom."
"Sweet dreams, kiddo."
Joy pulled her comforter up tight as her mom switched off the light and closed the door, blanketing the world in darkness once more.