Underwear Man stood in the front yard of my friend Dean’s house everyday at 1:45 in the morning for six weeks.
Last spring, Dean lived with a group of his friends in a bungalow near campus, in a neighborhood that is fairly picturesque like a stretch of houses, shrubs, and white picket fences yanked out of a scene from Pleasantville.
It is a clean, safe, and calm emblem of suburban bliss — despite its proximity to a college. On Sunday mornings, small children run up and down the sidewalks — blowing bubbles, chasing chipmunks, and indulging in the carefree whimsy of youth (before adolescence takes its hold, causing pimples and sexual frustration to strike).
Underwear Man, as Dean and his roommates called him, began to appear in the front yard late last January. Each morning that he held vigil in their yard, he stood in the same spot — approximately two steps in front of the miniature bird fountain (leftover from a former resident and certainly nothing a group of 22-year-old boys would ever choose).
No one was sure who Underwear Man was — whether he actually lived in the neighborhood or came from elsewhere. He earned his nickname because he wore a pair of bright, white briefs on his head — a mess of mousy, brown curls spilling out from underneath the waistband, which cut across his forehead.
It was clear that Underwear Man was harmless. Each time he came, he simply stood motionless, as though in a trance.
One night before a particularly brutal week of exams, Dean, his friends, and I stayed up until a ridiculously late (or early) hour. We alternated studying with watching Underwear Man through the dining room window, where we’d set up camp.
The moon cast a dim, gauzy glow over his face, lighting his sharp features from the chin up. Though Atlanta sits at the seat of the South, its winters are colder than one might expect, but Underwear Man only wore a pair of jeans and a white tee shirt that looked flimsier than it did warm.
“Dude, we need to call the cops on him or something,” one of Dean’s roommates remarked around 2:30, approximately fifteen minutes past the time that Underwear Man usually left.
As someone who regularly criticized Glenn Beck but still kept the Fox News website bookmarked on his computer, he’d unsurprisingly offered the more conservative suggestion — which, like always, I took with a grain of salt.
“It’s not like he does anything,” I said. “He just stands there. We can let him be, right?”
Dean murmured in agreement; his roommate shrugged, slipping his headphones back on; and I glanced at Underwear Man once more before turning back to my homework assignment. He had moved slightly, crossing his arms in front of his chest — to, perhaps, stave off the cold.
The next time I looked out the window, he was gone.
A couple days later, I hurried to the office where my college newspaper ran business — late because an earnest but misguided student asked a question two minutes before my last class ended, and the professor insisted on keeping us all there as he explained the answer.
At the time, I was news editor, and these biweekly production nights — during which my team helped prepare the paper for print — were already stressful, even when we started on time.
“Steph, can you do me a giant favor?” one of the other editors asked as soon as I walked in the office, before I’d even had the chance to set my bag down or catch my breath. He added, not waiting for me to respond, “I’m putting together the feature for this week. I need you to look something up for me.”
“Can’t you ask someone else?” I looked around the office. “I have way too much to do right now.”
My assistant editors were missing amongst the crowd of coffee-powered students jabbing away at their laptop keyboards. This meant I would have to start the news section by myself.
As though he hadn’t heard my response, the editor lifted a green, leather-bound book from the desk next to his — a collection of issues that the paper ran in 1999. It was so heavy that I buckled slightly at the knees when he thrust it into my hands.
“I’m putting together a timeline of the most significant events from the last twenty years in University history,” he explained, taking a bite of his burrito.
I stared down at the book in my hand and said a silent prayer to the Rice-and-Bean Gods that that burrito would give him indigestion. Hopefully, this wouldn’t take too long. “What do you need me to do?”
“Fact-check one of the events for me: Michelle Browning’s kidnapping in 1999.” He glanced at a sheet of paper in front of his computer. “I think the paper broke that story in the September 17th issue.”
I sat down in the chair next to him, opening the book in my lap. As I thumbed through the pages to find the right issue, I asked, “What happened, exactly? Michelle Browning was a student, right?”
“Yep. She was a junior, I think — can you double-check that? Really well liked, led a couple of campus charities, in a sorority, etc. The police never found her after she went missing at an off-campus party. Apparently, they identified her kidnapper, though — some guy who lived in the neighborhood.”
“Did they arrest him?”
“Nah, he also went missing before they could — weird, right? Can you check the spelling of his name?”
I flipped to the September 17th issue. A photo of Michelle Browning, grinning as she posed with our college mascot, took up almost half of the front page along with a headline that read “Police Identify Suspect in Student Kidnapping.”
As the other editor resumed typing the rest of the feature, I skimmed the beginning of the article before turning the page.
Suspect Bailey Cott, 41, is a former high school English teacher who lives two houses from the party where Browning went missing, I read before noticing his picture, on the side.
His hair was parted in the middle and hung down, past his chin, in loose curls. The picture was black-and-white, a contrast that made his face seem especially gaunt.
According to the Atlanta police department, Cott is currently on the run. When officers arrived at his house this past Sunday, they found a message he had left on his dining room table — a pair of white, men’s underwear and a note in unknown symbols, which police are currently working with linguistic experts to decipher.
“A pair of white, men’s underwear…” I murmured, suddenly processing what I’d just read.
I glanced at Bailey Cott’s picture again.