The Pocket Man
“Miss Hazel! Tom and Marla saw the Pocket Man! He went into the woods. Will you help us find him?”
It’s Heather, the youngest of the Ross brood, one of the children I’ve been reading to at the library every Saturday morning.
“I don’t think so, Heather,” I say. “You know the Pocket Man is only a make-believe character in a story.”
He carries treasures in the pockets of his cape; dreams wrapped in gossamer silk, stolen from the snores of sleeping dragons, plucked from the blushing red cheeks of young maidens, lifted gently from the lips of lovers as they prepare to kiss...
“No he’s not,” insists Heather. Tom and Marla saw him. He had a long black cape with treasures inside. Come on!” She grabs my hand and pulls.
I’m on my way home after a trip to the bank’s ATM to deposit my paycheck from the Brownsville Public Library. I’ve already had a brisk walk and am looking forward to a quiet Sunday afternoon with a pot of tea and a good book. But I let Heather pull me along, captured
by the look of excitement in her eyes and the stain of color across her cheekbones whipped by the chilly November wind. It’s a dark and gloomy afternoon, perfect for chasing fantasy characters through the woods. What the heck, I think, all the exercise will make me sleep well tonight.
It isn’t really a woods, just a long stretch of wild land owned by a city man who uses it to hunt. There are small copses of Osage orange, wickedly thorny, thickets of blackberries, equally thorny, and sumacs, their leaves flame-red against the barren stalks of goldenrod and queen anne’s lace.
We hurry after the sounds of Tom and Marlas’ voices up ahead, following the narrow footpath that winds over hills, around boulders and through lonely little dells where the wind lifts dead leaves and sends them swirling around our ankles.
If you manage to steal up on him and touch the folds of his cape, he’s obliged to open it and let you choose one of his treasures...
We skirt a large cedar tree, Heather’s coat brushing the branches and releasing its clean, sharp scent. Up ahead Marla and Tom come into view, running toward a cluster of twisted little trees.
“Wait!” cries Heather, “Tom, wait!”
Tom turns, waves impatiently, and Marla calls out, “Look! There he is! Quick, Tom!”
I look in the direction she’s pointing and see a shadowy figure disappearing around a bend. A swirl of black material trails behind him.
Intrigued, a little alarmed, I hurry to catch up with the other children. Again we glimpse our quarry up ahead, closer now. He glances back over his shoulder, then rushes on. He’s definitely wearing a cape and tight black pants with strange-looking shoes. High tops, with buttons. He has an odd, bow-legged stride.
“What in the world,” I mutter, again feeling alarm. But the children renew their efforts, sensing the chase is nearing its end.
“Kids, I don’t think - ”
I break off as the man leaps out from behind a boulder, growling, bent over with his hands outstretched. The children shriek and fall back. Heather runs behind me and peers around my skirt.
The man’s blue eyes are opened wide, his dark hair is long and tangled, his cheeks ruddy. He snarls and laughs maniacally, flexing his fingers as if to grab us.
Marla, the oldest, sees through his playacting and rushes forward, tugging on his cape.
“Oh ho,” he says, putting his hands on his hips, glaring down at her. “So you want treasures, do you?”
“Yes! Yes!” they shout.
“All right, then. You’ve caught me fair and square. Only one apiece now.” He spreads his cape open to reveal dozens of pockets sewn into the lining, each one bulging with odd-shaped lumps.
Tom goes first. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out something crisp and blue that expands in his hands to become a long-tailed kite. Marla gets a necklace of sparkling stones, and Heather, after some encouragement from her sister, shyly reaches into a pocket and pulls out a clown doll with a fancy silk costume.
They all rush away, eager to show off their gifts, remembering to call out “thank you” as they race home.
I eye the man curiously. “Did the library hire you?”
He looks back intently. “Hazel, don’t you want a gift too?”
I frown. “How do you know my name?”
But he only smiles, lifting the folds of his cape so the pockets are exposed once more.
“Come on, Hazel,” he coaxes, “I’ve something for you, too.”
I blush. “I’m too old for this.”
Decisions, decisions, all of them enticing, but remember as you choose, some dreams lead you forward, others hold you back...
There’s a pocket high up under his arm that looks flatter than the others, as if it’s empty. My eye is drawn to it again and again. My hand reaches out and slides into its silky depths. The Pocket Man stands very still. I fancy I can feel his heart beating inside the pocket. My fingers close over a small, hard shape and I pull out a skeleton key, old and rusty.
“Well,” I say, foolishly disappointed, (what had I expected, gold dust? Rubies and emeralds?) “I suppose this is the key to a long forgotten magic kingdom in need of a princess, if only I can find it.”
The man still stares at me and I grow uncomfortable. What does he see? A thin girl with pale hair, grey eyes and a pointed chin, nothing remarkable. Suddenly he lets his cape fall and bows low. “Good day to you, Hazel, and good luck.” He turns and strides off, leaving me utterly mystified.
Monday at the library I ask Sylvia, the head librarian, if she knows anything about the Pocket Man.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says, peering over her reading glasses. “Hazel, you should report him. He could be a pervert or something.”
But I don’t, even though he was quite bizarre.
At lunchtime I sit in the back room eating my sandwich with Maxine, my co-worker and best friend.
“So, have you gone out with Larry yet?” She raises an eyebrow and waggles her head, her short brown curls bobbing.
Maxine snorts. “Hazel, the man’s been in here five times in the last four days, and it’s not to see me or Sylvia. He’s a nice guy. You should get to know him. You’re too young to waste your life away in the library.” She stirs sugar into her coffee. “What are you, thirty-one? Sheesh!”
“Only a year older than you, and you’re not married”, I point out.
“But I’m looking! You’re not.”
“Why do people always think you’re wasting your life if you don’t get married? I like living alone.”
“Bullshit!” says Maxine, a little too loudly. A mother herding her children past the doorway glares in at her.
“One day you’re going to wake up and be seventy years old and realize life has passed you by.”
She bites into an apple and eyes me thoughtfully. “Seriously, Hazel, don’t you want a family of your own? A husband? Children?”
I sigh. “It’s not that.”
“Then what? You’ve dated two really nice guys since I’ve known you and you dropped them both. Now Larry’s dying to take you out and you’re ignoring him.”
“I just don’t feel the magic, Max. There’s something missing.” My turkey sandwich suddenly tastes flat. How can I explain? I don’t even understand it myself.
“You spend too much time reading about the past.” Maxine looks pointedly at the book lying beside me on the table. It’s a historical novel set in medieval England.
“Get with the 21st century. There are no knights in shining armor anymore. And you should change your hairstyle. Let it loose!”
I poke at my pale, swept up hair, tucking in a few wisps. “You may as well give up on me, Max. I’m the quintessential spinster librarian.”
Maxine shakes her head in exasperation. She crumples her lunch bag and tosses it in the trash. “But you don’t have to be. Take my advice: go out with Larry before he gives up and moves on.”
“Maybe,” I say, but I know I won’t.
Do you long for something unknown? Longing is a mournful dove that forever flutters out of reach. Her feathers are fashioned from lost hopes and forgotten dreams. These the Pocket Man gathers as they fall, weaving them into new beginnings, and tucks them into his cape. There they wait, shimmering faintly in the dark folds, till the right person comes along and sets them free again.
All week the key lies in a small scalloped dish on my dresser, totally incongruous with the delicate porcelain. I should throw it out. Maxine is right. I live in a dream world, waiting for the magic door to open. I know there are no such doors, no fairy tale princes, but time and again when I reach out to pick up the key and toss it in the trash I can’t bring myself to do it.
And then I start seeing keyholes everywhere I go. I see them in knotty tree trunks, in public restrooms, in picture frames. Tiny slits, large cracks, round or ragged or only vague outlines, they appear like magic in floor boards and ceilings and in the backs of chairs at the movie theater. I find myself staring at people’s briefcases, grandfather clocks, car doors, post office boxes, dresser drawers, wind-up toys. I dream about them. Over and over I fit the key inside a keyhole, breathless with anticipation, and then wake up before the lock turns. It’s driving me nuts. I’ve got to get rid of the key.
On Saturday morning during story hour the Ross children are full of talk about the Pocket Man. But their parents have forbidden them to look for him again.
“Will you find him, Miss Hazel? Tell him to come to the library so we can all have more presents.”
I smile and change the subject. “Today we’re reading about a platypus named Alvin. Does anyone know what a platypus is?”
When I get home I go straight to my dresser and get the key, fastening it to a cord around my neck. I’ll walk downtown and throw it in the dumpster behind the grocery store. That way I won’t be able to retrieve it. I feel relieved. It will soon be over and I can get back to normal.
The day is gloomy and overcast again. I leave my little old weather-beaten house which sits on a hill above town and enter the back garden. I bought this place three years ago because it was the only house I could afford, and because of this secret little garden, surrounded by a high wooden fence covered in ivy. In the center is a stone statue of a young girl holding a bowl. The birds perch on her head and shoulders and drink out of the bowl, which I keep filled with water.
I open the back gate and pause, eyeing the stone steps that lead down to Myrtle Street. The vines have grown over and through the fence and have begun covering the steps. I really must do something about them. I lift a cluster of vines beside the gate and see a keyhole. My heart starts to hammer. Slowly and carefully I lift away more ivy and uncover a square cut into the fence, about waist high, fastened with old, rusty hinges. It looks like it hasn’t been opened for ages. Centuries, maybe. I have to try the key. If I don’t, I’ll forever wonder. My hands tremble as I lift the string from around my neck and fit the key into the lock. I take a deep breath. It won’t open, of course. I turn it, and there is an audible click. The little door opens with a creak and a shower of rust as the old hinges labor.
I look into a garden, but not mine. Night is falling. There’s a pathway leading to an arbor with vines growing over it, weeping willows on either side, and in the distance I see a house with lighted windows. Under the arbor is a stone bench, and on it sits a woman with long red hair, wearing a filmy green dress, a short jacket with puffed sleeves and silk shoes.
She’s crying, and her sadness seems deep and old and without hope. I feel the pain of it stirring my heart. Tears well up in my own eyes until the scene grows blurry and indistinct.
A shadow appears in the picture. I blink hard and the shadow becomes a man walking up the path, dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a black coat. He has a head of dark curls and a smile on his face.
“Cara,” he calls, and the woman looks up. Her face registers shock and disbelief, then wonder, then shining joy.
“Oh, Charles!” she says, “Charles, it’s been so long!” She reaches out her arms and he moves into them.
I slam the door shut. My breath is ragged and my emotions raw. This is someone else’s dream, not mine. I have to give it back. My feet fly through the garden to the front of the house, across Pine Street to the wild stretch of land where the Pocket Man appeared. He’s got to be here. I have to find him. For an hour or more I wander up and down the lonely path, looking behind rocks, hoping for a glimpse of the billowing black cape. Finally I give up and start for home, and there he is, leaning against a tree, watching me with those intent blue eyes. He still wears the cape, the black pants, the buttoned shoes. His hair is still a mess, long and tangled, stuck with bits of dried leaves.
I hold out the key. “This was meant for someone else. I can’t keep it.”
He scrutinizes me, taking in my wispy hair falling out of its bun, my heavy old sweater with the baggy sleeves, my long wool skirt, my scuffed boots. “Why have you never married, Hazel?” he asks, ignoring the key.
I’m suddenly angry. “Look, I don’t know who you are or how you know my name, or what gives you the right to ask me personal questions, but I’m tired of it. Take the key back and I’ll be on my way.”
“I can’t,” he says. “Once a gift is given it can’t be taken back. It’s yours, Hazel. Do with it what you will.”
“I don’t want it,” I say, my lips stiff from the wind and from a sudden coldness deep inside. I throw the key down on the ground in front of him. He picks it up slowly and comes close to me, slipping the cord over my head.
“Why don’t you want it, Hazel? What are you afraid of?”
I start to say “nothing”, but I know it’s not the truth. I am afraid.
The Pocket Man is an illusive fellow, always disappearing just around the bend. But muster your courage and follow if you dare, for treasures await at the end of the chase!
“Who are you?” I ask.
“My name is Jack.” He bows and walks away, and for some reason the sight of his bow-legged stride makes me smile.
But I don’t smile much in the next week. I keep bursting into tears at the oddest times. It’s as if a dam has let loose in me and I can’t shore it up. Maxine catches me crying in the library.
“What’s wrong?” she asks with concern.
“I have no idea,” I blubber, swiping at the teardrops on the new mystery novel I’m unpacking. I shove it onto the shelf and reach for another book but I have to stop to blow my nose.
“Maybe you need to talk. You could come over after work.”
But talking isn’t what I need. I have to go back to the window in the fence. There’s unfinished business behind it, something I need to learn. Finally, on Thursday, I screw up my courage and go out to the garden gate, lifting the strands of ivy. The window is still there. Slowly, carefully I turn the key in the lock and push the window open. The same scene appears: the arbor, the trees, the bench, the woman sitting on it. She looks like a flaming candle in the dusk, crying wearily while the willows sigh in sympathy.
This time I’m watching for the man. Charles. I mouth the name as I watch him come up the path. He sees the woman and smiles. I can feel his joy. His heart overflows with love for her.
Oh, to be loved like that! It’s unimaginable, almost too much to bear.
I notice a little mole on his chin as he walks by. My finger wants to reach out and touch it. I know how it will feel.
“Cara,” he calls out.
She looks up, gasping. Her face goes through its transformation. “Oh, Charles! Charles, it’s been so long!”
They embrace, and I close the window. I can’t bear it. I slide down the fence and crouch on the cold ground. Deep sobs tear out of my chest. I’m shattering into a thousand pieces, gripped by something I don’t understand and don’t want to face. I stay there till it’s almost dark, then stumble inside, numb with cold, hardly able to breathe from crying. I go to bed and stay there all night and all the next day, calling in sick at the library. Finally, late in the day I get up, shower and eat a little. I feel calm and empty. When it’s dusk, I take the key and go back to the window in the ivy. This time the bench is empty. I grasp the edge of the window and vault over it, into the garden. My long red hair tumbles over my shoulders. My green dress rustles as I hurry to the bench and sit down. As soon as I do, everything is clear. I’m in a lifetime long past, sitting here as I’ve done every evening for three years, mourning the loss of my husband, Charles. I wait, fighting back the tears, until I see a shadow appear on the path, emerging out of the mists of time. The shadow becomes a figure, and I know it is my own dear husband, a fisherman, swept away long ago by a storm at sea.
I had gone with him to the harbor that morning to see him off. I clung to his jacket, begging him not to go, for I had a bad feeling.
“Please, Charles, don’t go out today. What if you don’t come back? I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t live without you.”
“Cara, don’t be afraid. I’ll always come back to you.” He kissed my face over and over. “Even if the boat were to go down I would find you again.”
“Promise me,” I said fiercely. “Promise you’ll come back no matter what. Say the words.”
“I promise you,” he whispered against my hair. “Our love is so strong it will last through all the ages to come. We’ll always be together.”
Now I watch as the shadow figure approaches through the dusk. All I have to do is call out and he will see me. We’ll be together again, and live the life we were meant to, in the house behind the garden with the welcoming glow in its windows. Love blossoms in my heart. I open my mouth to call out, bursting with joy. But the sound dies on my lips. Something is wrong. I can’t do it! I am Hazel now, not Cara. Yes, I could go back and pull him to me. But at what cost? The past and the future are not mine. Only this moment. The rest belongs to a Whole shaped not by sadness or joy or the tug of desire, but things far beyond our ken.
With one last look at his beloved face I walk back to the window and climb through, softly pulling it shut. The hinges creak one last time, then crumble and disappear. The seam in the wood closes up. The key falls out of my hand and becomes a shower of rust, trickling into the ivy. The dream and the promise that bound Charles and me is gone, setting us both free. I swallow the lump in my throat and wander aimlessly back through my garden, dropping bobby pins as I go and shaking my head loose from its bun. Couldn’t I at least have kept the beautiful red hair?
I find myself on the path through the wild land across the road from my house. It’s almost dark. A shadow appears in front of me, emerging out of the trees. The shadow becomes a figure in a long black cape, walking with a bow-legged gait. The Pocket Man comes quite close before he sees me. Finally his head jerks up and his blue eyes widen. There is a tiny mole on his chin. My fingers itch to touch it. Love is blossoming in my heart.
“Oh, Jack,” I sigh through the tightness in my throat, “It’s been so long, so long.”
He smiles and opens his arms. I move into the folds of his cape and the treasure-filled pockets close tightly around us both.