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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

The Flipbook Man

Updated: Jun 28

Out the second-floor window, against a gray cotton sky, a man was falling from the old bank building.

Ari and her husband were moving downtown. The apartment was smaller than her house in the far and distant countryside, but it felt bigger. White, empty walls. A soft echo. She had lived with her family her whole life until two days ago. Her husband made enough for them to finally move in together, but the catch was that he had to spend six months of the year away from home. That left the nesting to her.

Boxes of her stuff, bags of his, all teetered in piles for her to open with a butter knife, unpack on the dusty floor—maybe she should buy a broom first—unwrap from newspapers or unzip from pouches or untangle from each other, and organize. And find each object a home.

The apartment was a broken egg, white and jagged and enclosed. The bathroom didn’t have a tub. The kitchen and the living room were the same, separated only by the cracked linoleum cutting a crooked angle along the border of dark brown carpet. Most of the lightbulbs needed replaced.

At least there was a balcony. And from there is where she first saw the man falling.

It was unclear why she thought he was falling. She never saw him jump. That initial point, that leap of faith. She never saw it. She also didn’t see him land. She didn’t see him moving at all. The man was stuck, frozen in place mid-air. Stuck but falling.

At first she did nothing. She didn’t call the police. She didn’t call her husband or her family. She didn’t even flinch. She squinted, perhaps. But didn’t blink. Her pupils widened and shrunk. The dim overcast sky acted as a canvas to the bottoms of the man’s polished leather shoes, like a smudge on a paper plate.

His face, from what she could tell, was plain. Simple. Clean-shaven. He was looking ahead, straight ahead, his feet towards the earth, his sharp chin defiant against the reality of his fall. Was he smiling? Crying? It was impossible to see his full expression from that angle, at least 30 meters below.

The old bank building was the oldest building in town. It was also the tallest at a humbling eight floors. It had one of the first elevators in the county, assembled in 1912. The bank building itself no longer housed a bank, but rather showcased a cafe, a jeweler, a Nag Champa’s (one of those New-Age-y franchises that sold incense and soap), a Go-green bike repair shop (out of business), and a mish-mash of hand-me-down apartments and private therapists from the second floor up. One of the therapists dealt with veterans and soldiers suffering from PTSD, she knew.

She went back to unpacking. Her husband’s uniforms needed ironing, and she didn’t have an iron. She also needed that broom. And new curtains. There was no hurry, but she hurried anyway. The sooner her house became a home—rather, the sooner she stopped sleeping on a one-blanket bed with the single light of a charging phone and the sickly orange of downtown streetlamps beating through unadorned windows—the sooner she could stop crying.

She went to the store by foot. They were out of brooms, so she bought a dustpan and brush. That was easier to carry back anyway.

Two hours later she turned the corner near the intersection of Main Street and the Climate Bridge. Between her apartment and the old bank building was a firetruck, two police cars, and a large group of people. Above them was a single black speck. A fly caught in fly paper. 

The unmoving man, falling.


************


Ari had trouble sleeping the next few days.

Outside her window people murmured, yelled, screamed, gasped. Reporters filed in from all corners of the state like a swarm of midges in summer. Lights flashed and swatted at her eyelids. Horns blared, radios echoed against the brick buildings, police sirens blee-dooped.

The firefighters had extended their ladder to the man. They tried to pull him down. To move him at all. But he was glued to the sky. His business suit wasn’t actually black, but dark, dark blue. He had a red tie, a white button-up underneath. Each garment, like the man, was stiff and unmoving, as if he had been dipped in starch. There were signs of movement in his jacket and pants, however, as if the wind had pushed them up, exactly as they would at the beginning of a long drop. He was frozen in motion, a video set to pause.

The man could not be moved, nor could a single hair on his head be adjusted or clipped. He was as hard as the earth, as unbudging. After a week, they pulled the ladder down.

Ari’s bed was finished and made. She had a big fluffy quilt like the one her grandmother bought for her when she was five, except this was half-off at Walmart and also half as soft. She sent a picture to her husband. He said it was too pink, even though the quilt was red, plainly apple red and only stripes of it against white. She promised to change it before he came back. And when would that be again?

She rescued a nightstand from the curb, which would have ended up in the city’s newest landfill if she hadn’t been so good with a cleaning rag and a spot of carpenter’s glue. Then she put up new curtains. Plain red. Apple red, to match the bedspread. It felt like home, at least. The curtains blocked the sickly lights and, more importantly, stopped her from ducking down a little, looking up, and seeing the man falling.

Why did she have the urge to look?

Why couldn’t she keep herself away from the balcony, sitting, pretending to play games on her phone or talk to her family, all the while pretending the man falling was just another flag on a window sill, just another streetlamp, just another hundred-year-old ornament on a hundred-year-old building?

Maybe it was just how calm he was, she thought. Suspended, but clearly not dead. Not breathing, not blinking, but certainly alive. Something about him was animated. She was reminded of the sculpture Pietà, where Mary holds the lifeless body of her son as he sinks into her lap. But the falling man was not lifeless, and not marble, and not an abstraction of a story passed down over thousands of years. He was a human man, somehow.

She had been looking up so long that her neck hurt and the sun had started to set. Long shadows were being cast, silhouetting the man against the old bank building. But there was something odd. Normally, at this time in the evening, just before the sun disappeared behind the arid hills, yellowing the streets until night took over, the shadow from his heels would align perfectly along the top window of the apartment on the eighth floor. Today, the shadow was lower.


************


The man sank slowly over the coming weeks. It was impossible to perceive, but he still trickled down.

A neighbor two floors above Ari had been taking pictures. The pictures were all from the same angle and distance, and always at 8:45AM before work and 6:30PM after he had come home. He sent those pictures to the local news, where they televised the collection, showing each day in succession like a flipbook. Surely enough, the falling man was falling. Slowly. Excruciatingly slowly. After that, people called him the Flipbook Man.

Something clicked in the mind of the town. Ari wasn’t sure why or how she knew, but she felt it too. The Flipbook Man, with his new name, was now less horrifying. He was almost comical. In fact, there were several jokes buzzing around (see you next Fall!). Even her uncle fashioned the Flipbook Man into his repertoire of lazy humor:

“You know how I know that guy went on a date with your Aunt Ji-young? ‘Cause she always leaves men hangin’!”

Ari hated the joke but laughed sincerely despite herself. It was a relief. Something worrisome escaped her with the expelled air, and only soaked back in during her nights on the cold sheets.

She didn’t visit the balcony anymore. She only opened her curtains when she was desperate for sunlight, or when her nephews begged her to see the Flipbook Man during video calls.

After a few months, he became pure novelty. People passed beneath him, maybe admired this oddity of physics with a glance, and then carried on with their conversations and duties.

As he passed by the seventh-floor window, the tenant inside would poke him with her broom handle. She didn’t like him there, blocking the sun. The way the buildings were angled, she only had a few hours of warmth. Her grandchildren would come by and throw orange peels and wads of toilet paper dipped in toilet water. They would aim for his butt, or nest a wad perfectly in his ear. By the time the Flipbook Man got low enough to allow the tenant to get her daily dose of vitamin D, he was slick with loogies and sticky with juices and trash.

Nature also took its opportunities. Pigeons and seagulls rested on his shoulders and head and unmarked beltbuckle, shitting and squawking like he was a Times Square “silver man” mime erected for their leisure. The man’s face, so calm and Buddha-like before, creased slightly.

Ari went days without seeing him. Without thinking about him. When she did, he had moved a few inches. She tried measuring his shadows and hemlines against the brick pattern of the old bank building with just her eye. If she stared long enough, she thought she could catch the muscles in his face edging towards disgust. So she didn’t stare for long.

The apartment was fully dressed now. Without her husband’s interference, she had managed to make something that felt full despite the hollow. She hadn’t killed the echo, though. The sounds of her bare footsteps slapped and bounced against every surface. She added pictures to the walls, large plants in each corner, and rugs on every floor—two in the kitchen, burying the tacky linoleum—yet the echo persisted.

Her husband’s high school trophies and family photos and clothing were still in boxes on the far side of her room. She didn’t know what to do. The few items she had taken from his boxes felt like museum relics. They didn’t make her feel welcome. She would see them and they would only add to the crying.

She left them in the boxes.

At the fifth floor, the opening of the man’s left pantleg snagged on the ornate finial of a meter-long flagpole jutting out at a 45-degree angle from the old bank building. Ari had once wondered what would happen when the falling man reached an obstacle. Would the flagpole break under his slow, inevitable pressure? She couldn’t imagine it going any other way, but it did.

The metallic spear bowed over the coming days, but remained hooked to the falling man’s pantleg. He rotated, slightly. Then more. His leg buckled. His arms, which had once been smoothly hanging from his sides, started to spread like the wings of a landing stork.

The people in the bank building took notice. After a long time gathering in the street, straining their necks, and shrugging, they decided to ask the owner of the fifth-floor apartment to remove his flagpole, at least until the Flipbook Man safely passed by.

The owner of the fifth-floor apartment, however, didn’t comply. He, a disabled veteran, made a compelling case about the dishonor of removing the Stars and Stripes to make way for a man who so clearly decided to throw his life away. “Let the flag eat him up,” the man said to the news, more than once, over the next few days. Reporters knocked on his door at all hours. Several small groups of people reappeared on the street, some in support of the patriot and some shouting obscenities at his window. He got tired of the attention quickly. He shuttered his blinds and locked his door.

The falling man rotated more, buckled more.

Ari woke one night (if you could call what she was doing “sleep”), checked her phone, put it on the nightstand, checked it again just in case, and then went to the balcony. There was no wind. No flag was flapping in the lamplight. The metal flagpole had been sawn off.

She never found out who removed the pointed trap from the falling man’s leg, but the local paper assigned blame to a phantom group of nameless “anarchist” teenagers. The old veteran, livid, tried to erect another flag, but had to wait until the falling man’s stiff ankle continued its steady journey around and down.

Which it did.

The removal of the flag was too late. The man’s trajectory was now irrevocably shifted.


************


The falling man’s presence invaded her mind. Every thought, no matter how small or personal, returned an inaudible echo: “man falling.” Watching TV? Man falling. Time to buy toilet paper? Man falling. Pleasuring herself in the shower? Man falling.

By the time the falling man had passed in front of the second floor it had been a full season and a half. 

Ari’s husband was assigned another six months. He wouldn’t even come visit. He was “saving up leave” for one big vacation she knew would never happen. Despite his growing problems, he was still considered “fit for duty.” He would dress in desert camouflage every morning and then be tucked noiselessly in the back office of a hangar, told to count bolts and bullets—told to shuffle the paperwork that greased the wheels of the war machine. Man falling.

She had no idea what he did after work except drink. Man falling. And those were the times he never called unless he was sobbing and yelling about the world, about himself, about anything and everything she couldn’t bear to understand, and man falling.

She couldn’t keep her emotions organized. They came like blasts. Like meteoric blasts.

The powerlessness was the worst part.

The man hung there, forever outside of her ability to help, yet within reach. He hung at the corner of her eye, in the corner of her skull.

She had never actually told her husband about the man outside. If he knew about it, he never brought it up. She had told him very little of her worries, her sorrows, her deep pits. His castle was awaiting his royal migration. He had a wife, he had fresh sheets and apple curtains, he had a full fridge and warm sofas, and just outside he had a great view of—of the old bank building.

The man was fully upside-down now.

His face had stretched into full terror. She could see it. She could see it perfectly, straight-on, from her second-floor balcony. When she stood still in just the right spot, he was looking at her. Not through her, or beyond her. At her. He was desperate. Pleading and confused. How did he end up like this? Upside-down, a flesh statue covered in grime and seagull droppings from head to toe, the orange streetlamps pinching hard shadowy creases at the edges of his scream. His eyes sparkled with dew.

She was sad when his head first touched the ground.

The city had anticipated it, like a New Year clock. It had been calculated and recalculated by the undergrads at the university, down to the second, then down to the millisecond. Money had changed hands on when and how it would happen. People sat outside all night taking pictures, chatting by streetlight in lawn chairs with warm drinks, occasionally laying on the sidewalk with an eye parallel to the man’s thin-haired scalp to measure the millimeters before impact.

Ari tried not to participate, disappointed that the end was coming. But like all important things, the moment of impact was too slow to measure. There was a time before, and a time after, but the space in between was pure powerlessness.


************


No one expected the blood to come out as fast as it did. 

No one expected the blood at all.

Not a single person on the news or on TV, not a single person selling Flipbook Man flipbooks from the cafe counter or Flipbook Man t-shirts on the internet, not a single person in the apartments above Ari or along Main Street or in the old bank building, expected all that damned blood.

During all this time, the raw animality of this stranger had been lost on the community at large. There had been talk of souls, sure. There had been empathy, there had been hate and disdain. But they had forgotten the basic biology.

The falling man may have seemed stiff and impenetrable to the slow passage of time, but his blood had been flowing and his breath coming and going. He was alive. 

But not for much longer.


************


Ari did everything she could to ignore the man dying outside.

She stopped taking calls from her husband. She was too tired. All the time. She mostly slept. She mostly picked at her nails. She mostly played games on her phone and watched her DVD box set of Friends or pirated versions of Coffee Prince and Reply 1988, and called her family for hours on end. Sometimes, her father, having run out of stories, would fall asleep with the phone on his chest, and she listened. Just listened. She would rest the phone against her ear and piece together his sleeping wheezes. It comforted her. At least for a moment. Sometimes his aged breaths took too long between the in and the out, and then she remembered all the horrors of the world compressed neatly into a fine dark suit.

As the Flipbook Man’s skull fractured and flattened into the cement like an aluminum can, and his blood shot in slow bullets against the jeweler’s window and pooled between the weedy cracks of sidewalk, Ari slept and ate and watched TV and talked to her family. Man falling came to her in flashes that burned, but she was fine. He disintegrated, but she was fine.

The local authorities determined the best thing they could do was cover the Flipbook Man with a big blue tarp from the camping section of Walmart. They stretched the big blue tarp over his sky-extended leg like a circus tent and pinned the corners down with bricks and pieces of scrap metal from the abandoned recycling center. They cordoned off the area with yellow tape and redirected all of the building’s foot traffic through the back door.

The people of the town took this as an injustice. They had a right to experience the last moments of the falling man. People crowded around during the day to protest the tarp, but only in the dozens, and only for a few hours a day when it was the most convenient. The newspapers kept printing “the injustice” long after the people stopped coming, stopped seeming to care. 

Meanwhile, the pointed tip of the big blue tent lowered and lowered. A lane of blood eked its way out of the parameter and was quickly covered with sand from the arid hills that breathed heavy breaths down Main Street.

By this point, Ari’s husband had come home. He would stay a week at least, then he’d deploy to some other country. He claimed to have not heard about this falling man, refused to believe it. “Wouldn’t this be global news?” he asked. 

Ari didn’t want to talk about it, but she couldn’t help herself. She exploded into tears. She told him all about the falling man. The Flipbook Man, as they called him. And once she came open, everything spilled. She wept about forest fires, about rivers shrinking and rain crashing hard or not at all, about the yellowing of life, about the creatures that were leaving without saying goodbye. She told him how the Flibook Man had stared at her, how he was beaten and battered, how she sometimes thought she heard his scream as a slowed-down rumble that vibrated her knees. She showed him the tarp, the police cordoning, the newspapers. He laughed, said it couldn’t be. 

She cried and she cried and she cried.

He got upset. The apartment was ugly, it wasn’t fit for a married couple. The bed looked like it belonged to a little girl. Who had time for such big problems when these little ones were all they could change, all they could handle? And even then, more than they could handle. They had sex on the girlish bed anyway, and the tears stopped a little. Sex was all they could do, really. Then he left.

The apartment was hers again. All hers, with only her thoughts and her curtains and her rugs and, somewhere obscured within reach outside, her man falling.

The days got hotter even when they should have been getting colder. The last autumn approached, feverish and weak.

Ari wondered if she’d ever see him again. Any part of him. She wondered if they’d adorn the spot with a commemorative statue or a plaque. Who would be left to do it? At this her mother’s image on the phone nodded sadly, and said it was all part of small-town imagination. And maybe she was right. Maybe it was okay to imagine the end so long as it stayed imagined. Maybe it was better to imagine the place beyond the end, even. And for a few days, she lost herself in that dream.

The tarp is eventually removed. Road workers reconstruct the sidewalk, make it even better than before. They plant fruit trees along the edges, and trim the bushes conically and in measured spirals. Children come and pick the apples and berries and their mothers make them into jam using recycled mason jars. Birds come back. Not just any birds, but all birds, even the extinct ones. Even the woodpecker. The cafe sells ethically sourced espresso. You can drink it from a blanketed table in the not-too-hot sun. There is nothing of horror to note, nothing deep and dreadful to remark upon. There’s no need to hide in cheap entertainment or weak orgasms. It’s as if the Flipbook Man has never existed. The powerlessness is gone.

Ari took the elevator up to the top of the old bank building and peered downward. She was a black speck against the skyline. Below, the Flipbook Man had reached his last few pages.




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