They arrive late, an hour after sunset, and barricade the street with their trucks. Soon the chant starts up: “Joyless Man! Joyless Man!” I’ve lost track of how many nights they’ve visited me. It feels like they’ve been coming all summer, and the summer has been endless, the nights filled with the smoke of wayward firecrackers. “Joyless Man! Come out, Joyless Man!” If I could stay indoors, I would, but they file down the stone path to the backyard, where a sliding glass door leaves me exposed. The message is clear: they’ll come in and get me if I don’t come out. And so I do.
Headlights flood the street. All the neighbors have shuttered their windows. A man with a sunburned face yells out: “Joyless Man!” There are dozens of them. They strike me as facsimiles of each other, with their minor-league baseball haircuts and cinnamon gum breath. “Look who it is. Joyless Man.” “Welcome, Joyless Man.”
I don’t know why they call me by this name. I don’t know why they chose me or why they’ve decided to congregate here on Mallard Street. “What did you do today, Joyless Man? Where did your darling feet carry you?” Since there’s no reasonable answer to this question, I remain silent. A firecracker goes off. The men’s beards are glistening with sweat. One of them puts his arm around me and laughs.
But in truth, I’m not afraid anymore. They have been coming for weeks, maybe months, and they always leave peacefully. And they’re right, too: I am joyless. I haven’t made a friend in years. In my journal, I scribble manically about earthquakes, I track new strains of influenza, I run through the embarrassments of my life again and again. Joyless Man. I have my theories about them, naturally. They spend their days pounding the walls in exurban manufacturing plants, cursing the people that have conspired to take their livelihoods away. They are Loveless Men.
Another firework. The mood is fraternal yet tense, like before a riot begins, and while I may be the object of their scorn, the Loveless Men often seem to forget I’m there. They sip from coffee thermoses, talking about the trees downed by the storm, the live wires dancing on Mangum Street. Whenever I try to slip away, they swell around me and push me back into the center of the street. Then they recede.
Tonight, somebody new has joined them. As soon as I see him, I know that he’s dangerous. He’s older, his hair has a severe part, and he strides through the sweltering night as if he means to extract a confession. “Joyless Man.” Nobody has told him the rules. “Joyless Man.” He says it in an accusatory fashion. I want to confess, but I don’t know what he wants me to say. He reaches out with two fingers and pokes me in the chest. “Yes, I am joyless,” I say, “yes, yes.” He pokes me again, and this time, the move knocks the wind out of me. I fall down, scraping my arms as I try to catch myself, hitting my head.
The Loveless Men startle to attention. Some of them grab the older man and escort him off. Others rush in to help me. I feel ointment being rubbed on my arms, band-aids applied, water raised to my lips, a cold compress on my temple. It is an alien feeling to be comforted like this.
Before long, their trucks are all gone, the headlights have faded, and the street is quiet. In the distance, I see a rainbow, lit up in neon — a sign hanging above a bar, or a factory perhaps. I wonder if this is where the Loveless Men go when they leave me. I wonder if I will ever join them.