From the Archive — From the May 2018 issue

An Ordinary Man

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He stayed drunk the first week. He paced up and down the apartment howling, and Mrs. Voltaire hid behind the stove. After a week he went back to the office during the day, though it was some time before he did any work.

In the elevator at five-thirty, Malcolm tells him a joke. But jokes make him feel like crying. The world is flat, everything is what it is. Tea is dark water, bread is straw, a book weighs a pound, newspapers are black and white.

He does not desire things otherwise, but his life is a tremendous exertion.
The sorrow is heavy, he feels languorous, he wants to sleep. He is living with the pain, it fills his life. The pain is an embrace.

He needs to go to the dentist, but he doesn’t, the effort is too great. If someone would make the appointment for him, he would go.

Mrs. Voltaire is underfoot, in the way, beneath the piano, on the bed. She is pregnant, and her weight when she jumps on his lap drives her claws through his trousers into his thighs. Saturday night she gives birth to two kittens, one alive and one dead, and eats the dead one.

He perspires a lot. A rash appears on the calf of his left leg. Because of the headaches, it occurs to him that he may need glasses after all these years. And, in the morning, he does not know which is worse: the involuntary dreams of joy, or the sleeplessness.

He has a fantasy about the red telephone booths stationed throughout the city. Though mostly glass, they are really refuges to cry in. On every street corner, a tall box to run and cry in, a public comfort station, a place to take a leak. Pick up the phone (the phones are just to save face), pretend to be talking to someone. A line gathers outside. But don’t be intimidated! Weep away! It’s your right, as long as you press that black phone to your ear.

He waits all afternoon to speak to his boss, to tell him that he’s going to take another week off, but his boss doesn’t return from lunch that day. His wound has begun to stink. Most of his friends avoid him.

Sometimes his screams are so discreet he wonders if he’s suffering at all. Then the phone rings, and his heart butts against his ribs like a caged bull. It is only Stanley, asking him to a party, and he yells at him and says he wouldn’t dream of going to his goddam party. An hour later he calls Stanley back and accepts the invitation.

During his lunch hour he sits on a bench in the park behind the public library. Pigeons strut and tremble, drunks sprawl, the children of weary lady shoppers play tag. He pretends he is waiting for someone.

Sunday afternoon. Get up! Out into the city, like a timid child sent out to play or a gawking tourist from Ohio, he who has lived in Manhattan all his life. What shall it be? The Staten Island ferry, Central Park, the Frick Collection. He thinks he can survive tame, civil amusements and diversions overrun with people.

Someone accosts him on the ferry. “You look terrible, sir.” He is indignant, and then he laughs. This laughter becomes a palpable thing, it congeals, it solidifies, like a spar of wood thrown out to a man sinking in quicksand. Then he realizes that no one has spoken to him, that he has been gazing into a mirror in the men’s room. But he doesn’t scorn or patronize this demented laugh of his. Any species of order is order enough, he thinks; any place where I can take hold is as good as any other.

Back on the deck, he buys some peanuts and then settles on a bench along the railing. He yawns. His mother told him that when he or any of his five brothers and sisters were ill, she knew they were recovering when she saw them yawn.

The sun is shining; there is a breeze; the lower end of Manhattan, receding across the water, looks like the prow of a giant ship. He feels he is floating, too. It’s quiet, calm. Something has snapped today: the backbone of his longing. Which is it—madness or sanity?—to conclude, as he does now: Why, I’m just like everyone else! I’m alone. I’m unhappy. I’m unloved by the one I loved. Whatever made me think my lot would be different?

© 1964 Susan Sontag, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

From “Man with a Pain,” which appeared in the April 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete story—along with the magazine’s entire 167-year archive—is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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