Shadow Man

Shadow man’s still there,
his back to it all, huddled over the picnic table,
even after Halloween, after the first big December rain,
the pre-Christmas all day Church&Baseball Posada,
mariachi trumpet, impassioned orators:

Still there, under the sycamores,
big dun leaves plastering the basketball court,
staring, as he does, at nothing.

I envy him that nothing,
and the way his days take shape around it.
In the heat of midsummer,
awakening on his bench courtside,
moving across the way to the shade of a live oak
as the sun lifts overhead.

Not always easy to spot him there in the shadows,
at least not straightaway:
black tracksuit, black skin, black doo rag,
he goes off to soak in the fountain every so often,
the day stretching out before him,
sun making its transit across the sky.

One might well think him mad, living the way he does,
marooned somewhere inside his head,
up to nothing, nothing in hand,
moving spot to spot over the course of the day,
his stations in the park,
finding the sun when it’s chill, the shade when hot,
nothing more,
very nearly a mendicant of nothing.

I think not,
mad, that is, at least not when his eyes have met mine
those mornings I’ve been out there,
just the two of us at that early hour.
There is a man there present in that gaze,
careworn, to be sure, but in no way raddled or elsewhere.
Nor is he displeased to see me here,
come to pay a visit to the place he lives,
come with my ball to shoot awhile and watch the leaves
drift down, amber, dun and gold, the sun
sometimes catching a train of motes in their wake,
the sough of traffic along Claremont Boulevard.

I’ll wave. He may or may not wave back.
Usually not, or maybe offer the barest of nods.
Some days more than others weigh heavily upon him,
I can tell that by now.
One day I thought I even overheard a sob,
which is all the noise I’ve ever heard come out of him.

Shadow Man is out there now, always out there.
I can tell you where by the hour on the clock,
under which tree, what corner of the park,
almost as if he’s waiting for someone,
someone, who when ready, will know to come find him there.


He handed me his stick,
the street worker, in the hour before dawn,
the stick with which he picked trash from the gutter
to put into his bag, the tool by which he earned his way.
My friend H was much intrigued.
– Are you going to give it back to him?
– No, I said, and continued on.
H caught up behind me, voicing his concern,
a foreign town, the consequences unforeseeable.
What, for instance, if he came back after us
and brought his friends?
                        – Thief! he would remonstrate.
What sort of man would take a humble worker’s stick,
and force his children to go without?

We hurried our pace.
True enough, he did come back after us, and not alone.
We fled over tar-papered roof decks and parapets,
down alleys, through private gardens, trampling flower beds,
dogs barking and H none too pleased,
gasping for breath, muttering imprecations as we went.

Soon enough we had shaken our pursuers, and then H too vanished.
And then, after some wandering, I came upon familiar terrain,
places I routinely happen upon in the course of these night journeys:
the circus-y corner dive bar, one part Latin Quarter, three parts Brecht;
a verdant passage winding steeply uphill, not far from the Observatory;
a perch on the city’s crest, looking south toward the radio tower;
that lacerating disclosure and acid bath of sexual jealousy …
I know well the sites and circumstances;
still, the sequencing and iterations confound me.

And then, as is nearly always the case, I find myself home,
home being the old family house, and with no one around.
I had not phoned to say I would be gone
and am pained by my own thoughtlessness.
I know I shall be chastised on account of it
when Mother and Father do, finally, return,
which presently they do,
the car crunching gravel in the driveway.
But as they walk into the kitchen
they barely take account of me, so busy are they squabbling:
nothing serious, mind you, but each of them anxious to have his say.

Father, we get along so well these days,
the two of us very nearly the same age,
a powerful, more nearly fraternal kind of love between us now
and you ever so much more sympathetic.
I keep meaning to ask you
and always manage to forget: what sort of dreams were you dreaming
when, as a small child, I climbed weekend mornings into your bed?
Were they anything like my own, the kind that visit me of late?
And did you yourself remain a child in them,
casting foolishly, randomly about as I do, helpless and untethered,
even as an old man, even toward the end?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences