Fiction by Jennifer Wortman: Man in the Night

By Jennifer Wortman

I awoke suddenly in the night, as I often did, thinking I’d heard a noise, as I often did, and I rose from bed to investigate, following a dark, worn trail from bedroom to front room, where I switched on the nearest lamp to allay my fear.

In the middle of the room stood a man, flush-cheeked as if battered or buoyed by an extreme of weather, his grey eyes infused with the light of winter sun. If not for his strange glows, he could have strolled forth from a catalog of boring and dependable casual clothes, his hands stashed in pants pockets–though his hands weren’t in pockets but black leather, so lovely in the way of certain gloves, how they hugged the hand into abstraction, a form without flaw. My bladder seized and my legs shook, but my upper half kept calm, my heart’s thump, thump a distant assurance.

He smiled. For a moment, I expected him to offer his palm in introduction, but the smile soon melted into a glaze of contempt.

“Are you here to rob me,” I said, “or to do something else?”

“Why would I rob you?” he said, glancing around.

“Maybe you like books?”

“Oh, I like books. But they don’t do enough for me.”

“What does enough for you?” If I kept asking questions, maybe we’d have a chat, become friendly. A table of hors d’oeuvres would appear and I’d excuse myself to fill a plate.

“You’ll see,” he said.

Yes, it was comical how I stuck my hand beneath my robe, like I’d seen resourceful thieves do in films. “I have a gun.”

He laughed. “No, you don’t. Even if you pulled out a revolver and pointed it at my head, you still wouldn’t have a gun. You’re the kind of woman who’d never own a firearm, even one in your own hand.”

“How do you know?”

The flush in his face darkened. “It means I take one look at you and see everything. Who you vote for, what you ate for breakfast, what shows you watch each night. Everyone’s so fucking predictable.”

“That’s not true. You can’t tell what anyone will do.” These were words I lived by. Even I couldn’t tell what I would do. What was I capable of? I often fretted. Like everyone, I liked to believe that deep down I was courageous, skillful, and kind. But I also liked to believe that deep down I was craven, inept, and mean. This belief supplied me with a perverse pleasure, a confirmation of my worst fears about myself and the world, even as it fueled them.

“You can’t tell what anyone will do?” he scoffed. “You would say that. And you would be wrong. You can tell what I’m going to do.”

“What are you going to do?”

“You know. You’ve always known. I didn’t even make it to your room. You came to me.”

All the times I’d played this scenario out in my mind, everything had happened so fast, be it my escape or failure to escape. The slowness now threw me, allowed me the leisure of disbelief. Where were the instincts I thought would spring to action? Why hadn’t I screamed?

“You know why you haven’t screamed?” he said. “You’re not scared.”

It was true. My legs had stopped shaking, and I knew that was a bad sign, that somehow after all these years, I’d finally convinced myself, at the worst moment, that my fears couldn’t be true.

It was hard to imagine the harm those elegant gloves could inflict on my neck. In fact, the thought of them around my throat aroused me, though I’d never been attracted to such things. What had I been attracted to? So much: Men with wry smiles and sad eyes. Women who chewed gum hard. Chatty children. Dogs: their shameless panting, their brown sugar gaze. Turquoise skies. The pure confection of new snow. The mountains, how they tore beauty into the horizon and raised the eye.

So much love for the world trapped inside my fears.

As if from afar, I commanded myself to run. I zigged and zagged like a hare, but the man blocked all ways I tried to go and what for me was graceless and sad was for him a ballet–a step here, a leap there, arms down, then wide, and when he caught me, for a moment I mistook him for a place to rest and maybe he mistook me for something else too, because we were still, I warm from effort and him warm from my life, my little, pulsing, glorious life, in his beautiful, hidden hands.


Jennifer Wortman‘s work has been or will be published in The Normal School, North American Review, PANK, Massachussetts Review, Confrontation, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

 

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