The Man Who Came and Went: A Novel
by Joe Stillman

Published: 2022-03-01T00:0
Hardcover : 240 pages
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The Man Who Came and Went, a novel of the new west, is a magically realistic story for the modern era that will tease your understanding and beliefs, and draw you into the mysteries of the universe, from the brilliant mind of Joe Stillman, acclaimed Academy Award nominated co-writer of ...
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The Man Who Came and Went, a novel of the new west, is a magically realistic story for the modern era that will tease your understanding and beliefs, and draw you into the mysteries of the universe, from the brilliant mind of Joe Stillman, acclaimed Academy Award nominated co-writer of “Shrek.”

Fifteen-year-old Belutha Mariah, our storyteller, is the oldest of three kids from three different fathers. Her life’s goal is to keep her dysfunctional mom, Maybell, from procreating yet again and then to leave the coffin-sized town of Hadley, Arizona the second she graduates high school.

Along comes the new grill cook at Maybell’s Diner, Bill Bill, a mysterious drifter with the ability to mind-read orders. As word spreads in Hadley and beyond, the curious and desperate pour into this small desert town to eat at Maybell's.

Some believe Bill knows the secrets of the universe.

Belutha figures he’s probably nuts. But his cooking starts to transform the lives of locals and visitors, and Belutha finds her angry heart opening, as Bill begins to show her the porous boundary between this life and what comes after.

In a normal American town, something new and strange, and yet achingly familiar, begins to unfold.

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Before I can start this story, I have to tell you something that happened near the end of it. I’m sorry if that seems weird, but believe me you’re going to be really glad I did this.

We were on the road to Phoenix, the five of us. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat. Bill was to my right, looking out the window. Rodney was to my left, lost in thought and silent. Silence was a new experience for Rodney and I have to say it was a vast improvement. I made a mental note to suggest he try it more often.

Maybell was in the front seat driving. Rose was next to her. Both of them stared at the road ahead. No one was talking. Really, what was there to say after what happened?

We were in Rose’s car, a white Ford Escort. We thought about taking Martin’s Oldsmobile Cutlass because it was bigger. I really think he would have liked that. But we had already broken enough laws that day, and it was time to get Bill where he needed to go.

I’m not sure how long we had been riding in silence. Long enough so that the hum of the car became the only sound in the world. I was alone in my thoughts, replaying what happened, trying to make sense of it. And then suddenly, I wasn’t anymore. Alone, I mean. Bill was in there with me, in my thoughts, in my head, talking to me.

I had never known until that moment what a sanctuary my thoughts had been. It was the one place in the entire universe that belonged only to me. What a beautiful and terrible thing that is, to have such isolation.

I didn’t exactly hear Bill’s voice. There wasn’t any sound. It was more like a sense of his thinking, which happened to be right next to my own.

My first reaction was panic. Blind panic, if you really want to know. Who wouldn’t be scared? It felt like being naked in your bed in the middle of the night when suddenly the lights go on and you realize the whole world is in there with you.

The whole world wasn’t inside my head. But if one person could just come and go willy-nilly, then the very idea of privacy was suddenly blown to pieces. In that moment, reality as I understood it had ended. At the same time, a new and different reality, one that was completely foreign, opened up before me.

My heart was beating like a jackhammer.

I will say that, to Bill’s credit, he knew how to calm me down. I don’t know how many times he had done this before, or with how many people, but he was pretty matter-of-fact. He let me know he had something he wanted to tell me, something that couldn’t be said in words or sentences. I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now. The process of speaking—thought to mouth to ear—was all too clumsy. I had never thought of it before as being slow, but Bill had. He said talking was a bit like analog, and what he had to get across to me was more like digital. It was big and complex and could only be imparted directly to my mind.

And that’s what he did. Thoughts came faster than I knew they could. Scary fast. It would have all been completely nonsensical if Bill hadn’t told me how to take it in. By the time he was done, after Bill had imparted everything he came to say, I finally knew all there was to know.

I knew the story of Bill.

I knew the story of Maybell and Rose and Martin and pretty much everyone around us.

I knew things I couldn’t know.

About people I didn’t know.

About things that, until that moment, I would have thought impossible to know.

The point I’m trying to get across here is that in one very powerful explosion of thought, I knew pretty much the whole story.

Now I can start….

Excerpt 2:

That day, the day Bill arrived, my mom was serving up eggs and complaints.

“Dammit, that daughter ‘a mine,” she yelled to Dolene, across the diner. “She’s like walking birth control. Does she think I’m trying to have babies? ‘Scuse me, Darlin’” Maybell gave Clover’s bubble walker a little kick, sending it between tables 4 and 6 so she could get by and dump a load of dishes behind the counter.

Dolene was homegrown, like the tumbleweed, with eyes like a golden retriever that never quite looked at you directly. She was smart enough to add up a check, but you could tell she was never getting out of Hadley. “I take it you didn’t get laid last night.”

Maybell pointed to her sour puss. “Does this say ‘laid’ to you?”

There was a ‘harrumph’ from booth 5 by the window. That was Rose. Rose was an old woman by the time she was 30. Now she was in her late 60s, a widow since before I was born—in other words, forever. She liked to spend her afternoons at Maybell’s Diner, reading her book and keeping an eye on the goings on around her, as if she was the town’s homeroom teacher.

“Look at Saint Rose,” Maybell said, stuffing dirty plates into the plastic tub under the counter. “Thinks she smells better than Mentos. I ain’t running a library here, Rose. Next time bring Reader’s Digest!”

There was another sound from Rose, something between a ‘well’ and a ‘pfffft.’ She never took her eyes off her book.

The door opened with a DING from the bell that hung on it. No one noticed Bill entering. He was about average in height, but his skinny frame made him look taller. You could tell from his face that he was in his mid-20s, but those were hard years he had lived, and his body looked frail and geriatric. His clothes were old and clung to him like an extra layer of skin, with a smell that would never wash out.

The angles of his face were sharp and careworn. But his eyes, those were different. His face was hard and weathered, but his eyes were soft. They seemed brand new.

No one in the diner even looked. If they did they would have seen those eyes taking in every little detail: the people talking, forks carrying food, the string lights behind the counter, Dolene ringing up a check. But what drew Bill more than anything else was the grill. Harley, the grill cook, must have had four meals going at once, each with its own set of sounds and smells. Most of those meals involved eggs. His spatula made a metal-on-metal scrape as he turned them. Bill was riveted. He went to sit at the counter to watch.

Down the counter, a porkish-looking man named Earle—probably one of three men in town who had never slept with my mom—raised his empty cup. “Can I get a refill, Maybell?”

Maybell stopped and faced him. “Seriously, Earle? Is it so goddam much trouble for you to get up off your ass and get it yourself? Can’t you see I’m working here?”

“Well…” he stammered. “I just—was I—I was—”

Maybell pointed to the coffee pot. “How far away is that? Two feet?”

“Sure, I guess…”

“Am I your personal slave, Earle? Is that why God put me on earth?”

“No, I don’t think you’re—”

Maybell grabbed the pot and sloshed coffee in his Earle’s cup. “There. You happy now?”

He nodded meekly.

While she had the pot in her hand, Maybell filled the cup sitting in front of Bill. “I’ll be by to take your order in a minute, hon.”

Maybell walked on. Bill just sat there and stared at the coffee. For him, there was no diner anymore, no Maybell, no clanking dishes or dumb conversation. He leaned closer to that cup like it was the only thing in the world. And there he was, smelling coffee for the first time. And it smelled like life. Like a whole world. Like this is how a planet smells if you’re up in space and could take a deep breath. Bill was motionless for who knows how long. And then, when he was good and ready, he took his first sip.

Those eyes, the ones that didn’t belong on his head, they closed as if he was praying. No, more like he was hearing a prayer. The coffee was praying to be heard, and Bill heard it.

Excerpt 3:

I wasn’t just staring at Bill over dinner. I was staring hard, with an aim to intimidate. I think he misunderstood because he looked down at the way he was holding his fork, as if he might be doing it wrong.

Truth is, I was the one intimidated. Maybell’s men usually visited for no more than a few hours, arriving after midnight and disappearing before the sun. She had no interest in sharing her bed for more than sex. And a fair portion of the guys who came around had wives to get back to. So a strange man sitting down to dinner with us was a very uncomfortable first.

Sonny Boy was utterly uninvolved, as always. If Bill was wearing a turban and shoulder strapped grenade-launcher, I don’t think Sonny Boy would have looked up. It wasn’t Sonny Boy I was worried about, or even me. With Bill sitting three feet from Clover, I realized like never before how vulnerable an 8-month-old can be. I felt a helplessness like I never experienced before. How easy it would be for a stranger to destroy my world.

I was equally amazed by how unbothered Maybell seemed.

“What do you know about this guy?” I asked her, pointing my fork at Bill.

“He can cook,” she said. “What else do you need to know?”

“He could be a serial killer.”

“Belutha, would you please not second-guess everything decision I make?”

“I don’t second-guess you, Maybell. I first-guess you. You don’t even get a second guess!”

Maybell put down her fork. “Bill, are you a serial killer?”

Bill looked thoughtful, as if he wasn’t quite sure of the answer.

I decided I’d be sleeping with my rifle.

I walked into Sonny Boy’s room. Bill’s cot was made up, but Bill was nowhere around.

“Where’s the serial killer?” I asked.

“He’s not really a killer.” It was a question. Sonny Boy was playing Temple Run on his phone.

“Probably not, I guess. All I know is Maybell brought him here, so you gotta figure something’s not right.”

Sonny Boy couldn’t argue with that. “I think he went out back.”

“What for?”

Sonny Boy shrugged. I thought it must be comforting to have no curiosity.

I went out the back door and stood a moment to give my eyes a chance to adjust. Then I saw him. He was about 100 feet from the house, facing away. His head was angled up. He was looking at the stars. We had no houses in back of us, just desert, so there was no ambient light to diffuse the night sky. It still amazes me that, given all of Maybell’s disastrous life choices, she got this one, an isolated house, just right.

I walked over, purposely making noise. I didn’t think startling a potential killer was a good idea. Every step felt more precarious. I went through a catalog of all the possible ways he could turn and kill me, at least five or six scenarios in those few seconds. It seemed stupid to not have brought my rifle. I could throw a punch almost as well as a guy, but it’s just not the same as a weapon.

I kept myself about five feet back in case I had to run. I’m sure he heard me, but he didn’t look away from the sky.

“I got eyes in the back of my head,” I said after a moment. “Anything happens tonight, I’ll know.”

Nothing. It was possible he didn’t hear me. Or maybe he was getting ready to turn and attack me with a kitchen knife. I pictured him wearing a clown face.

“You so much as breathe on Sonny Boy, you’ll be staring at the business end of a loaded rifle.” It wasn’t hard to sound menacing. I meant it.

He finally craned his neck to look at me. He had a smile. He didn’t look threatening or threatened. I found that disconcerting. Bill’s smile seemed genuine, even innocent. His eyes looked at me as if to say, “Aren’t those stars amazing?” Then he turned to look up again.

I went back in the house without saying a word. “Okay,” I thought. “You get round one.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

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