August 28, 2013
He was not unusual because he had a man. In those days every boy had a man or wanted one. He was not unusual because he had a man that talked. With the boom in mining and the approaching war, they were breeding more talking mans, and many boys—at least those born to well-to-do families—had mans that talked.
What made this boy unusual was that he was born to a poor family and he had a man that talked.
He was playing in the bramble after school one day when he spotted the man.
“A man!” the boy exclaimed.
The man said, “Hello there.”
“A man that talks!” squealed the delighted boy.
He did not look like a wild or dangerous man, so the boy fashioned a leash out of string from his sack and led the man home.
He played with him in his room until just before his mother came home. He told the man, “Don’t say anything or I will be punished.”
The man, who seemed to have understanding, said, “Okay.”
Then the boy put him under the bed.
The mother came home, and then the father. The man under the bed said nothing, and the evening ended with night as it always did.
In the morning before the boy left for school, he checked under his bed.
“I’m hungry,” said the man.
“At the place where I was before, they fed me.”
“What do you eat?”
“I don’t know. What do you eat?”
The boy went out into the kitchen and brought back his meager breakfast which his mother had left for him and gave it to the man. The boy watched as the man ate. The man ate everything. The boy’s hungry stomach growled as he watched.
The man looked up from the plate he had licked clean. “Now I’m thirsty.”
The boy came back with water and watched as the man drank. Then he put the man back under the bed and left for school.
After school the boy raced home and checked under his bed. The man’s snore was a steady buzz. The boy shook him until his eyes drooped open.
“Come on, let’s play.”
“I’m hungry again.”
“Uh . . . okay.”
The man followed as the boy checked the house for food. Sometimes when the boy turned, the man would be inspecting some object in his hand—Mother’s prized glass bowl, a dish towel, the shiny tin of cooking oil, the small singing harp—and the boy would invariably order the man to put the thing down and he would do so obediently, for he was an obedient man.
Opening a cupboard, the boy discovered the scraps of meat his mother had hung to dry. The man took them from him and devoured them quickly. But afterward he was playful and talkative. All in all, the boy was having a good time, though he worried what would happen when his parents found the scraps of meat were missing.
Just before it was time for his parents to arrive home, the boy put the man back under the bed and prepared for the worst.
His mother would be wroth. She would scold and threaten with punishments severe. But he would stand his ground. He would cry, “But Mom, every boy should have a man. All the other kids have one. Why can’t I? It’s just not fair.”
Maybe it would work. Maybe.
That evening when his parents arrived home, they were in a grand mood, having stopped off at the festival and come back with sacks full of food. At the festival there is much food and everyone is free to eat. No one is supposed to eat to excess or put the food in sacks and take it home, but his parents were known to be poor and so the authorities, as usual, looked the other way.
The evening became night, the boy’s mother did not mention the missing scraps of dried meat, and the boy went to bed believing that he had gotten away with it.
Under the bed, his man was talking. He was saying silly things and singing silly songs: “Fly me to the moon. Fly me to the stars. Fe, fe, fe! Victory!” The words made no sense, but the boy listened, enchanted, until he fell asleep.
The next day, the boy raced home after school to be with his man, but he found his mother fussing around the kitchen—his mother, who almost never came home early. Before the boy could say a word, his mother scolded, “Let me see this man of yours.”
The boy was frightened speechless. Mother didn’t look angry, not exactly, but she continued to scold: “What have you been feeding him? All of our food? I was saving that meat. They don’t eat that. He’s going to get sick and make a big mess. When your father finds out, what do you think he’s going to say? You know his temper. You didn’t steal this man, did you?”
He led her into his room and bid the man come out from under the bed.
The man emerged timidly. First his head popped out, then his limbs. Unfolding himself, he stood to his full height. He was tall—almost as tall as the boy. He was a tall man, but thin. His ribs showed through his skin. He hadn’t been eating properly since even before the boy had found him, and they lose weight so fast when they do not eat.
His hair was matted with dirt, bramble, and what appeared to be bird droppings. He smelled like feces. He looked like a well-bred man, so the mother didn’t imagine that he had messed on himself—but she knew that somewhere under the bed was a pile of his droppings that she would have to locate and remove before the whole place smelled like a zoo.
The boy’s mother took the man out back and washed him down with soapy water and a sponge. The man shivered as she dried his body with the fluffy towel Grandmother had given them. He had brownish skin, with areas around his elbows and knees darker than everywhere else.
She scratched his head with one of her combs, and when she had the hairs on his head under control, she tied the ends of them with little bits of colored cloth. She trimmed the coarse hairs on his chest and loins with clippers of brass, and then she pinched his loins into a crisp red pouch retrieved from her room.
The man was very pretty after the mother was done with him—him with his new hair cloths and fancy loin pouch. He looked like the man of a wealthy family now and this troubled her.
The mother went out to the market and returned with some vegetables and grains. She explained to the boy: “This is what they eat.”
“But he ate all the meat that I gave him. He seemed to like it.”
The mother shook her head. “They are not cannibals. Eating of his own flesh will make him sick.”
She set the food in a bowl before the man, and she and the boy watched as he ate. He was a well-trained man, who ate without spilling. As the man ate, the boy petted his head and the mother, caught up in nostalgia, told him, “I had a man when I was a little girl.”
“I love my man,” the boy said, playfully pinching the man’s ear as he chewed his food.
“He’s a very fine man, indeed,” the mother observed. “I loved my man too, when I was a little girl. But my father, your grandfather, he didn’t like him at all.” The mother spoke in a calm, sad voice. “When I was about your age, I got my man. We found three little mans aimlessly wandering around the schoolyard. Juveniles with no adult that we could see. They were part of a litter, we guessed, but they did not all look alike. Two were pale and stout—one was brown, and he was tall like this one, though not so handsome. The teacher decided to put our names in a hat. The first name she drew was mine. I chose the brown one. He had dark brown skin and coal-black eyes. Because there was a lighter spot on his cheek, I called him Bright Cheek. I brought him home on a leash that the teacher gave me. My mother took one look at him and shook her head. Your father is not going to like this one bit, she warned. But I begged and pleaded, so she cleaned him up, fed him, and then sewed pretty cloths for his hair and a pouch for his loins. That same one there that your man is wearing.” She pointed to the pretty red pouch. “Then we placed some bedding on the ground so that he would have a place to sleep. When my father came home and saw the man, he started yelling right away and did not stop until the morning. No mans! I hate mans, they are messy and smelly and they carry diseases! he kept yelling. I cried and cried. The only reason he resisted throwing the man out into the street that night was because it was stormy and there was a law about cruelty to mans. When morning came your grandmother got up and prepared the man, and she helped me take him back to school. The teacher put the names in the hat again, all except mine, and I watched as another girl won my man and took him home. I cried and cried.”
“I’m not going to let Father give my man away!” the boy shouted.
“Well, we’ll just have to keep him under the bed until I can talk to your father. I’ll try to talk to him.”
“I’m not going to let Father give him away! I’m not going to let anybody take him. I’m going to keep him forever and ever,” said the boy, with the resoluteness of an innocent. “And I’m going to call him Brown Skin!”
The boy hugged the man’s neck as he spoke. The man gazed up at the boy with what could pass for understanding. The mother noticed and a horrified expression appeared on her face. She said to the boy, “Can he talk? Is he a man that talks?”
The boy, who was usually very honest, saw the look on his mother’s face and told a small lie: “No. He can’t talk.”
The mother seemed to relax after that, her pleasant smile returning, and she began to pet the man, who was already being hugged and petted by the boy. The mother was smiling, but she muttered under her breath and mostly to herself a warning: “Only the wealthy own mans that talk. We don’t need that kind of trouble.”
It went well for two more days, days in which the boy played with his man that he kept under the bed, and the mother considered different approaches for talking to the father about the secret guest in their house.
On the third day, the boy, overcome by an adventurous spirit, decided to take the man out for a walk. He warned the man not to talk, of course, and the man agreed. He was a man with very good understanding.
They went to the market. They went to the square. They went to the field where other boys—the sons of wealthy families—were walking their mans. Everywhere they went, the boy received compliments for having such a fine, handsome, pleasant-smelling man.
Then they went to the green hill where boys were flying kites and workers were setting up for the next festival.
The mayor, who had come to inspect, was there with his wife. But the mayor was no expert on festivals: another election was coming and he was really there to collect votes.
The mayor’s wife, an avid lover of mans, spotted the boy and his man and came straightway over and announced: “That is a fine man you have there!”
The boy, who was enjoying all the attention, did not detect the false appreciation in her voice and answered boastfully, “Yes, he is a fine man. He is the finest man in the world!”
“Where does he get such fine bright cloths for his hair?”
“My mother made them. She is clever with her hands,” the boy said. “She makes all of our clothes too.”
“And does your man speak?” the mayor’s wife asked, her voice at last revealing her true emotion, anger. “Does your clever-handed mother make fine conversation with your man that talks?”
“No,” the boy heard his mouth say. “He does not talk.”
The mayor’s wife held him firmly by the shoulder and shook him as she spoke: “And from where did your clever mother steal this man that talks?”
“My mother did not steal him,” said the boy, pulling against her firm grip. He wanted to run away. He wanted to run far away from there.
But the mayor’s wife gripped him ever more tightly. “From where did your clever mother steal my man that talks?”
“He doesn’t talk. She didn’t steal him,” the boy stammered.
“We’ll see about that.”
Now there was a big commotion, and a crowd had gathered—the boys with their kites, the workers with their tools, and even the mayor bustled over.
The mayor proved to be more civil than his wife, because he did not want to scare off any potential votes from among the gathered workers, but the law is the law and theft of property is against the law. His wife, who still had a firm grip on the boy, had so many of them at home that she did not actually recognize this one as the man that had gone missing a month and a half ago, but the man could talk and the boy was obviously poor. That was evidence enough. It did not help that the man kept shouting at intervals, “I want to stay with the boy forever and ever!”
So his mother was called for.
At this point the boy was admitting that the man was not his, because he did not want to get his mother in trouble. He admitted that he had found the man wandering in the bramble.
But the mayor’s wife was demanding justice. There was talk of arrest and punishments severe.
The boy’s mother became distraught. The mayor, again trying to resolve things in a civil fashion, sent for the boy’s father.
The father appeared wearing the uniform of his labor with his head hung low. The father wore the uniform of a loader.
The mayor’s wife was issuing threats in a voice that had become hoarse from shouting, the mother was weeping softly with her hand on the boy’s head, and the boy was holding the man’s hand, or rather the man was clutching the boy’s hand and repeating, “I like the boy. I want to stay with the boy forever and ever. I like the boy. I like his mother too.”
The mayor pulled the father away from the throng and addressed him: “Do you understand what is going on here?”
The father answered sadly, “Yes, I do, sir.”
“My wife has every right, you know?”
The father sighed, “Yes, I know she does.”
“Do you have any idea the trouble you and your family are in if she pursues this? And you are completely in the wrong on this.”
The father nodded hopelessly, the worry lines on his face multiplying.
“But,” the mayor whispered, “she does tend to blow things out of proportion.”
“Does she?” asked the father.
The mayor pressed a finger to a dirt-caked button on the father’s uniform. “Now, we have an election coming up. There are big things that I would like to do. Big things for everyone. And I need votes. Everyone’s votes. Yours. Your neighbors’. Your fellow loaders’. I have big plans for everyone, but my wife—she blows everything completely out of proportion.”
The mayor put a hand on the father’s back, and turning, they faced the mother, the mayor’s wife, the boy, and his man. The mouth of the mayor’s wife was still flapping, but now they all looked exhausted, even the man, who kept repeating, “I like the boy. I like his mother too.”
“Now your boy—he looks like a fine boy. I believe him when he says he found the man. Who would be so unwise as to steal a man from her?” joked the mayor. “Her mans run off all the time. She has too many of them. She loves them to death but she can’t keep track of them. Frankly, I think she talks so much she scares them off.”
When the mayor laughed, it was a politician’s laugh, a laugh that put everyone at ease. The father, at ease now, laughed along with the mayor, whose hand was still on his back.
The mayor said to him, “Go home, you and your family. No harm was done. The man looks healthy enough. Your boy took good care of him. You have a fine boy there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re a union man, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes, sir. I am.”
“Good! I’m all for that. Talk to your fellows. I sure could use their vote.”
They walked home in silence, the father, the mother, and the boy.
The boy could only imagine the great embarrassment he had caused his father—how terribly the mayor must have scolded him. He could only imagine the elaborate punishments that awaited. In his little hands were the pretty red pouch and the colored cloths his man had worn; in his heart, there was only sorrow.
When they got home, the father said nothing to the boy.
At mealtime, it was a good meal, made up of the excess they had taken from the festival. The father was still wearing his unwashed loader’s uniform—he never wore his uniform at the table, but he said nothing. He ate his meal in silence. The mother and the boy—they ate their meals in silence.
After mealtime it was evening, and evening turned to night in the silent home.
The wealthy do not understand the sorrows of the poor. The poor do not understand the sorrows of the wealthy. Another war would come soon.
That night in the home of the poor loader, the boy dreamt of a great festival that went on and on forever, and everybody had a man.
In the morning the boy went to school, and when he came home his mother was home from work early again.
He worried that something was wrong—that he had done something wrong again—but the sadness he had seen on her face the day before was gone and she was cheerful. He nevertheless was suspicious because it was not like her to be home at such an early hour.
When he got to his room, he jumped for joy. There was a man on his bed!
It was not as big as the man he had found that had run away from the mayor’s loud wife, nor was it as fine looking.
Later he would learn that it was also not a man that talked.
Nor was it one that was bred for the mines.
Nor was it a man that only a wealthy family could afford.
It was just an average run-of-the-mill man, and he loved her already. He ran and threw his arms around her neck.
It was a female man.
It was a female man with colored cloths in her hair, the red pouch covering her loins, and a note tied up in the red ribbon around her neck.
As his smiling mother looked on through the doorway, the boy opened his father’s note and read the words which retold an eternal truth: Every boy should have a man. You’re a fine son. Love, Father.
PRESTON L. ALLEN, a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of Jesus Boy, the critically-acclaimed novel All or Nothing (Akashic), and the award-winning collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Penguin), Miami Noir (Akashic), and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic). He lives in South Florida. Every Boy Should Have a Man is his latest novel.
Adapted from Every Boy Should Have a Man, by Preston L. Allen, Copyright © 2013 by Preston L. Allen. With the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books.