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The Tall Man

February 1, 2015

Looking back, the signs were all there. It was like someone or something was trying to desperately warn us that a storm was coming. As is usually the case, no one listened. Now an entire city is left to pick up the shattered remnants of its existence.  First there was the incident at the zoo. It was an early Monday morning in September, and the Rosedale elementary school had taken their first field trip of the year. It ended abruptly when the lone black bear cannibalized itself to death in a bloody display right in front of the terrified kids. The following day, a freak storm developed out of nowhere, taking weatherman and citizen alike by surprise. It also resulted in the death of Deputy Mayor John Hiller when lightning struck him as he was leaving City Hall for his daily lunch in the park. On Wednesday, the day started out like any other day. The weather was fine, the zoo had reopened, and the flooding from the storm on Tuesday had receded. People felt good about their lives, which explained why no one batted an eye when 5,000 dead fish showed up on the beach and in the local marina. Just another day, just another news filler. On Thursday, Pete Dwyer walked into the local library and shot five people before turning the gun on himself. He was a ‘Nam vet, a known drunk, and according to every gossip in town, it was bound to happen sooner or later. A town mourned for those it lost. On Friday, the tall man walked into town, and that’s when things in Rosedale, Illinois got really bad.

Nobody knew where he came from, not that they’d care. The people of Rosedale tended to ignore those they didn’t know or trust. It was an unfriendly city for the most part, but the people managed to stay tolerant of each other just long enough to keep things civil. All anybody really knew was that by Saturday morning he had an old type revival tent set up in the park. There were chairs set up, 70 on each side of a long aisle that started at the tent flap and ran all the way down to what looked like a makeshift altar. The man himself, at least to me, looked to be about 6’10. In the days that followed, some would say he was anywhere from 7 to 10 feet tall. Some claimed he wasn’t even human at all. He had sunken eyes and a long but not overbearing nose. He was slender and he had a crooked grin. He was dressed in the style of an old revival preacher, wide brimmed black hat, black frock coat, and black pants. He was in the middle of feeding bread to a few of the city’s homeless. Their hungry eyes spoke of a gratitude that their mouths could never give voice to. I thought nothing of it. After all, as the main reporter for the city’s lone newspaper, I had a mass shooting at the library to finish covering.

The following day, this would be Sunday; the tall man was back at it. Only this time, the number of grateful homeless in the tent had doubled. A few of the Rosedale citizens could be heard complaining throughout the day. After all, Rosedale saw its homeless population more as blight than as human beings. They were not to be seen or heard. In fact, in recent months the city had cracked down on the homeless by putting “pay-per-sit” benches in the parks. When the benches weren’t being used by citizens, spikes replaced the sitting area. This was to discourage the homeless from tainting the city by daring to sleep in public. A massive fine was also issued to anyone caught feeding the rabble. We all knew that $1500 for a piece of bread or a sandwich was far too extreme. While we all showed faux outrage in public, deep in our hearts none of us really cared.

Before I go on, I want to make sure I set the record straight on Rosedale. Rosedale was not an evil town. The people could be friendly but we were all set in our own ways. That being said, there was an underlying sense that Rosedale wasn’t exactly…right. A few that have passed through our fair town have likened it to an old house. It was beautiful on the outside, but on the inside you could see the wear and tear of years gone by. It’s been said of most small towns that there is a skeleton in every closet. Rosedale was no different. We had our skeletons, and most of us had come to co-exist with them. In fact, you could say that we had hidden our skeletons so well, that most of us forgot we even had them. The Tall Man changed all of that, at least for a little while.

At any rate, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the biggest skeleton in the Rosedale closet, was the homeless. The city did all it could to make it appear like they didn’t exist. If they were seen during the day by the police, they would be hauled off to the city holding cells until midnight when the streets were dark and the citizens had mostly retired to the sanctuary of their own homes. During the annual Apple Blossom Festival, which brought in tourists from all over the Midwest, the city would round up all the homeless and lock them up until the “Johnny Be Gones” had returned back to their respective cities and states. Their treatment was almost inhuman, and while some of them had once been friends or family members, they were all looked at as strangers by the citizens of Rosedale.

By Monday morning, the Tall Man’s tent had completely filled up with the city’s homeless. A few of the louder citizens complained to the police chief and a patrol car was sent down to the park before noon. The Tall Man had explained to the patrol officer that he had gotten the proper permits and had been approved by the city clerk James Kerry. Until the day he died, James would deny ever having issued that permit. However, he could hardly call the signature, his signature, on the permit a forgery, and so the permit and the tent stood, and the Tall Man continued his work with the homeless. What that was, was anybody’s guess.

By Tuesday, I had been bitten by the curiosity bug hard enough to venture down within earshot of the tent. I was curious as to what was holding the attention of the homeless every day from 10am-3pm. I listened intently as the Tall Man spoke. He had a bit of a southern drawl and I must admit, his voice had a magnetism to it. When the words flowed, you couldn’t help but be sucked in. After he had handed out the bread to the now completely full tent, he stood up in front of his makeshift congregation, took a deep breath and spoke.

“Brothers and Sisters, I stand before you today feeding you. Though it is not food I nourish you with, but hope. Hope that soon you will rise from the ashes like the flames of the phoenix. That you will take the lump of coal this city has given you and turn it into a gem so bright that no one can refute its beauty. Look out to the streets behind me brothers and sisters! On those streets walk the very people who have tried you and found you guilty of nothing more than being down on your luck. They have turned their backs on you and in the process have left a gaping, seeping, and infected wound in the middle of the city. I am here to heal that wound! I am here to overturn their judgments and show them that you are far more than simple blight. The wind may whistle my friends, but it does not carry a tune. Fire may roar and crackle, but it has no melody. You my friends will be the song that rings out in the night, the symphony of salvation that soars through the stars and brings hope to those who have been abandoned and left with nothing. When my time has come to an end here in Rosedale, you will never be forgotten again.” His voice soared to great heights and fell to nary a whisper at times. The homeless drank in his performance and responded with a jubilant cry of joy when he was done. Though it was nearly 90 degrees outside, my flesh grew cold. Though he hadn’t really said anything any other televangelist hasn’t said before, coming from him it carried an ominous tone. I avoided eye contact with the tent the rest of the day. That night I had a dream that Rosedale was engulfed in flames. That its citizens were scurrying through darkened streets filled with blood. Standing over the city with fire in his eyes, a stone cold grin, and at least 50 feet high, was the Tall Man.

The next morning, Rosedale awakened to the news that every single “Pay-To-Sit” park bench had been ripped out of the concrete and overturned. No one could quite explain it, though to be fair, no one really cared either. It was just another odd incident, another skeleton you could say, to throw in the closet. That day I bypassed the park entirely. I went straight to my desk and started doing research. I referenced “Tall Man,” “Tent Revivals,” and even “Creepy preachers.” Nothing popped of course, not that I expected it to. I was searching through pictures of old tent revival preachers and about to give up when I spotted something midway down my screen. It was an old picture from the Gettysburg battlefield taken by Matthew Brady. A bunch of dead Union Soldiers were lined up in a row awaiting burial. On the right stood two men, a Captain, and a preacher wearing a wide brimmed black hat and a black frock coat. The photo was too grainy to make out the preachers face though I could see the captains plain as day. Without really thinking, I referenced Revival+Preacher+Disaster. I could barely contain the scream that arose deep in my chest. There he was at Five Forks standing over the Confederate dead dressed as a southern medic. There he was again snapped as a bystander the day after the Great Chicago fire of 1871 looking dapper in a suit. He was photographed once more in 1929 on Black Tuesday during the stock market crash, and again in Hawaii on December 7th 1941. He was in the background of a picture taken in Detroit just two days before the race riots of 1968 as well as at Kent State mere hours before the National Guard turned its back on the very people it was supposed to protect. Each time the face was grainy, but the rest of the picture was clear as day. He was always dressed in something relevant to the event, but the hat always remained. That, more than anything, made my blood run cold. Though I had no solid proof, I knew in my heart that the man I saw in the photographs was the man who was out preaching to the homeless in the park. I knew no one would listen to what I had to say so I took my recorder and I started down towards the park. I figured maybe I could get him to expound on just what exactly it was he was doing in Rosedale.

As my office was on the far side of the park in the town square, I was able to cut right through the middle without much hassle. I was about to cross the street to the park side of the city when I heard the first shots. I beat feet as quick as I could to the tent where I witnessed 3 homeless men attacking a police officer. A fourth man was on the ground bleeding from a chest wound. The three men were growling and ripping at the flesh of the officer and had managed to pull his insides out with their bare hands while he lay on the ground screaming. The rest of the “congregation” was sitting by passively as if nothing was taking place at all. I looked up at the Tall Man who was yelling at the three men to have mercy and stop before it was too late. He lifted his head briefly and looked at me. For an instant there was a blank expression. Then a smile slowly spread across his face. Just as quickly, he returned his attention back towards the now dead officer. I felt a wet warmth start to spread down my left leg just as the police chief and five other patrol cars pulled up. I stepped into the shadow of the tent corner in the hopes that nobody would notice the dark patch that had run down the crotch of my pants. The police arrested the three homeless men who were now sitting docile and co-operating completely. The story, as I heard it, was that people were complaining of the noise coming from the tent, and the patrol man, one Terry Winston, went down to try and get the noise level down. When he got there, four of the homeless men charged him. He fired off two shots and got one of them before the other three overtook him. The police chief put his foot down and told the Tall Man that enough was enough and that he didn’t care how many permits he had, it was time to close down shop and get the hell out of Rosedale. The Tall Man politely agreed. The homeless scattered back to wherever it was they went, and the Tall Man went about dismantling his tent. He smiled at me again as I left and added a tip of the hat as an added chilling bonus. I went home, changed my pants, and pulled the whiskey down from the top cabinet above the fridge.

That night, a fire started in the town firehouse. A few homemade Molotov cocktails had been lobbed through the window just after midnight. The fire then spread next door to the police station and then over to James Lawton’s market. Within minutes the entire town hall was engulfed in flames. Having been jolted awake by numerous fire alarms, the citizens of Rosedale exited their houses in a state of confusion and in a variety of dress. That’s when the attack came. Underneath the loud roar of the fire, an almost primal scream rose. Suddenly a few hundred homeless stormed down Main Street between the park and the town square. Some were armed with knives, some with forks, others had nothing but their bare hands. All of them, however, had the same hate filled eyes. Understanding the scene that was unfolding, I raced down to my basement and quickly braced the doors with a few pieces of wood and two table legs. Outside I heard growling, gnashing of teeth, and the blood curdling screams of my neighbors. Suddenly I heard the main door of my house splinter. Within seconds there was pounding on the basement door. I tucked my body in on itself as tight as I could and closed my eyes. I tried to take myself to a secret place, somewhere far beyond the horrors that had invaded our town, but the pounding kept bringing me back. At one point I stopped breathing and the darkness swirled in on me.

When I finally came to, I could see bits of light coming in through the crack of the basement door. It was light outside. The banging had stopped and I could hear voices, normal voices, outside. I cautiously pulled away the table legs and cracked the basement door. There was no one there. I exited my house to find a literal blood bath in the streets and on the lawns. Bodies were strewn all over the place, some looked like they had been chewed through. The police chief, a man named Ernie Young, approached me and asked how I was doing. I said fine and asked him what the hell happened.

“It was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen Nick. One minute these yahoos are running around elbow deep in guts and screaming like banshees, and the next…” he trailed off as he looked away. “After a few minutes they just stopped. They stopped and sat down like nothing had happened. We didn’t know if they were going to get up and start killing again so we shot them. Every single one. Body count will be up around 300-400. A lot of craziness for one week Nick, even for this town.” I nodded as he walked off. I had thought about bringing up the research I had done on the Tall Man, but there was no way it was going to fly. The Tall Man, like everything else in Rosedale, was just a skeleton waiting to be tossed into the closet.

Three months later, things had gotten back to normal in Rosedale. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of a slaughter anywhere in the town. People went about their business and life went on the way it only could in Rosedale. A town that isn’t evil, but that isn’t quite right either. No mention was made of the Tall Man ever again. He had been locked away deep in the closet with the other secrets and atrocities we couldn’t bear to face. I had done a little more research on him and found that whenever there was an economic or racial conflict in this country, he could be found in the photographic catalog taken of those events. Eventually I had put the Tall Man out of mind and out of sight myself.

The following year, on what would have been the anniversary of the Rosedale Horror had we not buried it, I received an email from my sister Sarah. Sarah was a lawyer for the oil unions down in Texas. The contract disputes had been getting quite ugly and she was afraid of escalation. Still, she said that she was happy and that there were plenty of diversions to help de-stress with. She also attached a picture from a carnival she had gone to that night. A friend of hers had taken it, she went on to explain. I looked at the picture closely as my blood ran cold. Sarah was standing next to a grinning clown; a tall, slender clown with sunken eyes and a wide brimmed black hat.

– Christopher Williamson

© 2014 Library of Congress.

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