The Atomic Man

Nathan moved to the city in 1988, straight out of college, fresh and cleansed and ready for his new job doing data entry at the library. Data entry had not been his first career choice, but all he really had to offer was a bachelor’s in library sciences and a strong desire to leave home; besides, he figured he’d move up the library ladder as time went on. He got an apartment in a ten-story concrete building facing the highway. For the first month he lay awake every night for an hour, listening to the cars buzz and staring at the ceiling as it flickered with headlight traces coming through the cracks in the blinds.

In a year he had moved up to making all the biography purchases, and that was where he stayed, doing a lot of reading about other people’s lives. It wasn’t bad really; for a while it was even enough. But three years after he had moved to the city, he started having trouble sleeping again. He’d stare at the ceiling for two hours or more, eyes drifting with the shimmery headlights on the ceiling, the whole room colored amber by street lights. Every morning he tried to remember what had finally sent him to sleep, but every morning the blissful moment was gone, wiped from his brain by the five hours of emptiness that had followed it; he could only picture the stucco ceiling, its tiny sharp molded spikes glowing sick orange, their shadows dancing and breathing, and the eerily sharp blue-white shafts cut by headlights; and then nothing, not even dreams.

Tonight he had come home from work at 7:30 only to find cop cars lined up in front of the apartment building and “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tape blocking the entrances. He didn’t bother to ask what had happened. He just left and went for a walk.

He walked along the highway, trying to clear his mind as the headlights pierced his eyes. The street opened before him, grey and featureless, littered with roadkill and neon, and he walked into it, feeling himself swallowed up, pushing through city guts with each step. The trees were bare and there were no passers-by. The sky, bruised pink-purple-blue with glowing fog, hung tangibly down and weighed on him. It grew harder and harder to walk, but he pushed on, counting alleyways, stabbed relentlessly by headlights, street lights, neon, flashing orange “DON’T WALK” hands. When he reached Lonsford Street, he turned into it mechanically, half expecting it to be a prop, a huge backdrop painted to tantalize him with the thought that another world existed; but of course it was real, so he continued along it, heading now for Holbrook Park.

Lonsford was a much nicer street than the highway, narrower and bumpier and homier, but still dead straight and lined with neon. He walked livelier, unpierced by headlights, and noticed that he was hungry. He turned into the Jennifer Café two blocks before the park, a purple trendy establishment filled with white clothes and flashing smiles bright as the street, and sat at the bar: that way the only person he had to see was the bartender, a fattish thirty-year-old with thinning shoulder-length blonde hair, a rat goatee, and a blue velour tuxedo. He ordered a mixed-fruit and yogurt blend and got it in two minutes in a Budweiser mug festooned with several different-colored straws and an orange slice, then sipped it in silence as the bartender plodded back and forth, answering calls from either side. The white noise of conversation surrounded him; he couldn’t pick out any one person talking; eventually he wondered if they were speaking English. He left five dollars under the Bud mug and left.

Outside he ran into a woman from the library about to go in.

“Hello, Nathan,” she said.

“Hello, Margaret,” he said.

And they stared at each other awkwardly for a second or two before he smiled nervously and turned to go.

He had walked the further two blocks and was slowly crossing the street to enter the park when a loud honk startled him for a second and headlights pierced his head straight through and he was hit by a car, a little Honda, it seemed like, which sped up after hitting him, slack-jawed people leaning out of the back windows and staring at him lying on the street.

He screamed until it seemed that he should stop screaming. The pain did not really hit him, but threatened from a distance, shaking its fist. He looked up at the stars, but they were too bright, so he closed his eyes over hot tears. He worked to unclench his face muscles and breathe. His hands and arms stung with gravel but his leg stung with numbness. A shadow moved over him and he opened his eyes.

It was a shortish rail-thin man with dark skin and white eyes, dressed in a dapper green jumpsuit with contrasting yellow socks and gloves. He stood looking at bloodied Nathan on the ground with a puzzled otherworldly expression twisting his mouth. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked.

Nathan thought for a minute before answering “No.” His voice came out squeaky.

“Do you need help?”


“All right. Please close your eyes,” he said, and Nathan felt pressure under neck and knees then a nauseating series of lurches as the man carried him into the park and set him down on a park bench.

Nathan thanked him and introduced himself; the man said “No, thank you. It’s been some time since I had a good talk with someone.” Nathan asked if the man could please call an ambulance, as he was feeling a little faint, and worried about the amount of blood he’d seen on the road, and the man disappeared for a couple minutes to call the ambulance.

He came back shaking his head. “It’ll be a while,” he said; “there has been quite a fire downtown, with many people injured or killed, and I said you were probably not in immediate danger. You do not feel in immediate danger?” To which Nathan had to agree, although he was somewhat concerned about the lack of pain. “That is natural,” said the man, “you will have to wait for the pain.” And he smiled a tight little smile for a blinding fraction of a second.

The man sat in an empty spot at one end of the bench, next to Nathan’s head, and took out a cigarette from a bag stashed under the bench. Nathan refused an offer of one for himself. “You don’t smoke?” asked the man, and Nathan made a noncommittal noise, knowing that smokers can sometimes be sensitive. The man didn’t push the point, he just blew smoke clouds mingling with breath clouds into the crystalline air. Silence and cold settled over Nathan like a fire blanket, deadening him, and he started to think about things.

After the car accident, the cold, and the man’s odd taste in clothing, his mind turned to Margaret and wondered whether she went to the Jennifer often. He imagined meeting her there, having scintillating conversation over fruit cocktails, inviting her to see the apartment; she came laughingly, ringing bells along the street, wearing a gossamer gown that trailed off behind her and swished in the wind, never touching ground. He stripped naked in the elevator; she followed; they stood there awkwardly until arriving at the tenth floor; then they entered his apartment and got into bed and lay there with the lights out, staring at the headlights on the ceiling until they slept. He woke up in the morning with a hard-on, but Margaret had gone, leaving only the gown and a sort of puddle of molasses on the bed that he tried to wash out four times with no results.

“May I ask what you do?” said the man.

“What I do? For a living?” said Nathan.

“Yes, for a living; or, if you don’t make a living, then what do you do during the day?” said the man. So Nathan explained the library job. “I just ordered another volume in the Teddy Roosevelt series and a paperback on Len Bias today,” he said; “you remember Len Bias? He died of a cocaine overdose the first time he tried it. This book is written by his mother, of all people! I wonder how much money she’s going to make out of it. It’s a popular book, certainly, nothing scholarly about it, nothing people will read in five or ten years. But I really like the ghost writer. You get to know their styles if you do this long enough.”

“Sounds quite unreal,” said the man. Then he lit another cigarette and crossed his legs in the other direction.

“Can I ask you a little favor?” said Nathan; and the man immediately chirped a perky “No, not at all, what do you need?”

“Would you mind getting some water? I’d really like to wash the gravel out of my hands.”

And so the man reached into his bag and pulled out a tin cup that had once held Campbell’s Soup and went to a water fountain. He seemed back before he had left, and he sprinkled Nathan’s hands one at a time with the shockingly cold water, then gently stroked them, dislodging little bits of gravel which clattered to the ground like Nathan was shattering. The pain was intense, and Nathan made a small animal noise. The man clucked his tongue, dipped a glove into the water, and drew it over Nathan’s forehead; its frightening chill transfixed Nathan as the man kept dislodging gravel from his hands. He lay, mouth open, for quite a while after the man had finished and gone back to sitting cross-legged.

“I hope that wasn’t too painful,” said the man. Nathan assured him that it had not been.

“Please don’t lie to me,” said the man. “It lacks respect.”

Nathan apologized, and there was another long silence, filled by the roaring rush in his ears.

“Um,” he said eventually, “what do you do?”

“You mean for a living,” said the man.

“I suppose so,” said Nathan; “and also, what’s your name? I forgot to ask before.”

“I am the atomic man,” said the man.

Nathan asked what his parents had been on, then laughed a forced little whining laugh, cut off by a shivering wave of fear and numbness.

“I don’t remember my parents very well,” said the man. “It has been a very long time since we were in contact. And now, their being dead, it seems to be doubtful that contact will be reestablished. The time for that is passed.

“I suppose that you ask to see if I was named by hippies. You flatter me; I am much too old for that. My name is self-imposed. It symbolizes what I do.

“What I do is exist, alone and indivisible, which is a very difficult path to choose in life.”

Nathan was silent, looking into the stars and trying to move his legs.

The man continued: “It probably sounds quite easy to you, something everyone could be good at. But this is not true, and a moment of thought should convince you. It is hard to not have parents, friends, acquaintances, or anyone that cares about you at all. Too many people in this world take it upon themselves to care about everyone. It is quite hard to escape them, and takes iron discipline -- or perhaps very good luck, and a certain kind of personality. I was not blessed with the personality, so have chosen discipline. The set of rules I live by is long and growing longer.

“I am even now violating one of my rules by talking to you, but sometimes I simply need to talk to someone. It is a weakness, but, I think, an unavoidable one. And you seemed an admirable choice. Being quite alone yourself, you probably understand.

“What I need to discuss, I suppose, are the rules, which I will try to summarize quickly. It may seem strange to you that I need you to hear this, but it is more for my benefit than yours, you see. I simply need to put things in order.

“Beware company in your own mind. Do not shun dialogue with others only to accept dialogue with yourself. Atomicity implies oneness of thought, as well as consistency of action and emotional solitude.

“Attach yourself to adolescence, a universe of separate bodies affecting each other only cursorily. There you can be ignored by everyone.

“Avoid strangers because friends were strangers once.

“Avoid crime or the scene of one. Every role -- victim, perpetrator, innocent bystander, heroic rescuer -- is loaded. No one connected with a crime escapes overlooked.”

The man continued as the water dried on Nathan’s forehead and he stared into the stars. What Nathan heard was the rushing beat of his heart in his ears, the high-pitched stinging wail of tinnitus from a distance, and a rustling buzz of cars passing outside his window. What he saw was the multitude of stars coalescing into strips of blue-white light on the dark blue ceiling; and the light fanned out over the sky and began slowly to drift as he went to work, faceless, read blank books, and shelved them according to a plan he did not understand on shelves full of blank books already; and faceless Margaret appeared naked, holding a book over her pelvis, and Nathan took off his own clothes only to discover his legs had melted into molasses; and the man stood up and walked away as Nathan slipped into unconsciousness and the ambulance arrived.

Copyright 1994 Eddie Kohler. All rights reserved.