"Imagining a Stranger"
Short Fiction, The North American Review
by Derek Green
My sister Mary was crossing the parking lot after work at the Showcase Cinema when a guy with tattoos on his arms picked her up: I mean, he put one hand on her shoulder, the other in her crotch and lifted.
Like I told my father later, it’s not the kind of thing you believe when you’re seeing it and I didn’t know what to do. I flashed the car lights on and off. I hollered Mary’s name. She pushed the man and whacked him on the ear. She didn’t scream.
By the time I was out of the Volvo, he’d run back to a gray van and peeled away beneath the street lights. I was thinking, What a way to start summer vacation, when suddenly I realized my knees were watery. Mary was dressed in her usherette uniform---a white ruffly blouse and black slacks. She said she was all right, except that her knuckles hurt from hitting the guy. Then her hands started shaking and soon she was shaking all over.
At the police station Mary told three different policemen that she’d never seen the guy before. They showed us pictures of men. “Did he look like this one,” one of the detectives asked. “Or this one?” I told them about the tattoos. I tried to describe the van but all I could come up with was gray. “A gray van,” one cop said, looking around the room. “Lotsa help.”
By the time Mom and Dad got there Mary was sick of the story. She told Dad that nothing had happened, really. He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. I’d never seen him swear in public, but the detectives didn’t seem very surprised. They just went on writing in their pads. They told us they’d keep us informed if anything happened.
“That’s all?” my father asked. “That’s everything you can do?”
“That’s it,” the detective said.
My parents never get mad over the same things, which is one reason why their marriage works. If we get bad grades at school, for instance, my father will lecture us on the value of appearances and my mother will tell us stories about flunking algebra at college. When the principal of our school found a pack of cigarettes in Mary’s gym-locker last fall, Dad grounded her for a month. Mom wrote a letter asking by whose authority the principal had searched my sister’s belongings. I have a picture of Mom carrying a picket sign for animal rights on the diag at the University of Michigan; in the background stands our father, shy as a hummingbird, with an embarrassed look on his face. Last Thanksgiving when my father left the table early to take care of some important business, Mom shook her head and told us that he takes life too seriously.
But as Dad likes to say, love is a triumph of compromise, and in the end he and my mother complement one another. For a week Dad was angry about what had happened to Mary. He called the police twice, complained about their inefficiency, and insisted on driving Mary to work. Mom urged patience. On Thursday Dad said he’d seen a gray van driving around our neighborhood and asked me if I’d seen anything strange. I told him I hadn’t seen any gray vans. The next night none of us knew what to say when Dad came home with a small gun in a wooden case.
Mom refused to look at it. “You’ve blown this whole thing out of proportion,” she said. “Have you lost your mind?”
“We’ve become complacent. The world is not the place we’d like it to be. We have to be realistic. We live in an insane time.”
“That thing,” Mom said, pointing at the gun, “is disgusting. I don’t want it in the same house as my children.”
She left the room. We heard a door slam.
Dad has always been honest with Mary and me. He sat down with us at the round table in the family room. He popped open the gun’s cylinder, spun it once like Russian Roulette, and showed us where the bullets went in. He called it a weapon and explained to us about powder, the compression of gasses, and the propulsion of a bullet. He handed me the gun. It fit in my palm like a carpenter’s tool, felt heavier than it looked, and smelled oily. I gave it to Mary but she shrugged and gave it back. Dad said we were nearly adults and so were to be trusted and that by understanding a weapon we made it less mysterious and thereby safer. He put the gun in its case and told us where he would keep the key and the ammunition then took us upstairs to the closet where he planned to keep it.
“I never, ever want either of you to take this from here, unless someone breaks through the front door. If you think something’s wrong, get me. If you’re alone, call the police. But don’t ever use this thing,” he said.
Mary always agrees with Mom. She said that guns make her sick and went off to her room. Dad turned to me. Once, before I was in school, Dad took us to a zoo and held me on his shoulders to look in the alligator pit. I clung to his hair because I was afraid of falling in and Mary made a face and said all reptiles disgusted her. A few years later I was in the backyard using a stick to poke a salamander. Dad came up behind me and poked my ribs and asked me how I liked it. Then he told me that all living things were precious and that I had no more right to injure a small animal than some stranger had to injure me. This was years ago but he looked at me now with the same steady gaze. When he set the gun on the top shelf I poked him in the ribs and said, “Hey, Dad, I thought all life was precious.”
“It is,” he said, moving aside some old towels. “But your life and Mary’s are more precious than anyone else’s.”
I love my father. I respect him. I’ve never feared him or doubted anything he’s said to me. When friends at school complain about their fathers---that they refuse the money for a spring-break trip or take away the keys from their cars---I shake my head and wonder at the lack of gratitude some people can have. Of course, I’ve done some stupid things in my life. I once sold a bicycle of Mary’s to an older boy for three dollars and the winter I turned ten I brought home a family of puppies and hid them in my room for two days. Just last year---against my father's wishes and to my own regret---I spent a whole summer’s earnings on a worn-out dirt bike that now leans unusable against the wall in our garage. I've learned to listen to Dad. In our family, Mary is the one who learns lessons the hard way.
So when Dad said, at dinner the week after he brought home the revolver, that Mary should quit her job I could have predicted the way she would react.
“Mom!” she cried.
Mom set her fork down. “There is no way,” she said, “that you’re making her quit her job.”
“There are plenty of jobs during the day,” Dad said. “Safe jobs.”
“I can take care of myself,” Mary said. “I’m eighteen years old.”
“It’s a rotten part of town, Mary. Who knows what would have happened to you if your brother hadn’t been there when that man attacked you?”
“Dad, nothing happened!”
Mary is two years older than me and most people say she’s smart. But she doesn’t understand how to handle our parents. Mom was clearly on her side and Dad always likes us to make choices on our own---he would never force her to do something against her will. But Mary like drama. By throwing her napkin on her plate, she forced Dad to defend his position. She never sees the pattern. Dad began, then, to state facts. He told us that sixty-seven percent of violent crimes were committed against women, that in a case like Mary’s, odds were one-in-three that the assailant had observed her movements, had stalked her, for more than two days. Dad repeated the word, stalked. Further, he said, there was a good chance the man would try again. That last part might have been something made up---always a possibility when Dad fails to supply numbers. But we all got the point. Dad works in insurance, heading a team of people who predict how many catastrophes a company will have to pay on in a given fiscal period. He had investigated the matter, and for our father, there was no seriousness like the seriousness of statistics.
Mom turned to Mary. “Honey,” she said, “go upstairs and lock yourself in your bedroom where you’ll be safe.”
“You can be as sarcastic as you like,” Dad said. “But there’s enough danger in the world without inviting it. Anything can happen out there.”
“I wonder,” Mom said, “what the statistics are on accidents in houses with guns.”
Dad glanced my way, sucked on a tooth. “Everything comes back that.”
Mom suggested that we discuss the matter later, not at supper. We passed the dishes around, avoiding each other’s gazes.
Later, when I could tell from the silence downstairs that my parents were having an argument, I stopped at Mary’s room. She was lying on her bed looking through a magazine that smelled like perfume.
“What do you want, Jeffery?”
“What do you think they’re talking about down there?”
I sat down on her desk-chair, which is rickety, unstained and too small, and seems to me a perfect example of how Mary’s personality is reflected in her belongings. The desk itself, for instance, is covered with frivolous things, photos and magazines, and her little ceramic bunny collection takes up more space on her bookshelves than her books do.
“It’s none of my business what they’re talking about,” she said. She turned page. “People around here should mind their own business.”
“Dad’s right, you know. You should quit that job of yours. It’s not very safe.”
“Goodbye, Jeffery,” she said.
“If I hadn’t been there that night, there’s no telling what would have happened to you.”
“Your problem is that you have no mind of your own. You have to do everything Dad does. But you’re just a little kid. You’ll grow up one day.”
“You’re just mad because you have to quit your stupid job.”
“No matter what he says, you agree. If Dad told you to jump off a bridge, all you’d want to know is which side to jump from. You’d kill someone if he told you too. You’re such a suck-up. It makes me sick.”
None of this is true, of course, but there’s no sense in trying to explain anything to Mary. There’s no sense in trying to get her to read a newspaper, for instance, or listen to the news. You can’t explain to her that on the radio you heard about a teenager being snatched from her car on Middlebelt Road one week and being found the next in a burlap bag in the back of a pickup with her mouth still taped shut. I know what Dad means. But Mary believes whatever she wants to believe.
I told her there was no reason for her to insult me just because she knew she was wrong. I told her the truth: that she might surprise herself and learn something by listening to Dad every now and then.
“Close the door on your way out, Jeffery,” she said. And she rolled over on her back.
I was so mad I almost knocked the stupid bunnies off her bookshelf. But I stood up and went back to my room quietly. I sat at my desk and looked out at the afternoon light, which slanted down onto our back yard. Behind the trees there’s a little brook where I sometimes sit when I’m angry or feel like thinking. I tried to spot the water behind the trees and told myself that some people won’t listen to you even when you’re worried about them and that my sister was one of these.
A couple days later, Saturday, my father asked if I felt like going to the firing range. The parking lot was crowded, surrounded on all sides by tall pine trees and oaks. The range itself was a long row of men and women standing in stalls and shooting across a field at targets. Some of the targets were shaped like animals, some like men. A large woman in a camouflage cap sold us ear plugs and led us to our firing stall. Our target was the silhouette of a man in a stocking cap, aiming a pistol our way.
Dad handed me our gun and leaned over my shoulder to show me how to hold it. I’d pulled the trigger before, when the gun was unloaded. But now I was afraid the recoil would snap my wrist. Dad told me to aim at the intruder’s chest and squeeze the trigger smoothly. I did this but nothing happened. Then, just as Dad leaned forward to help me, the gun went off, kicking my hands over my head, just like in the movies. There was the smell of burned powder, and I’d felt the force of the shot all the way to my shoulders, but I’d missed the target completely. I tried a couple more times without much luck.
Dad took the gun. He’d been practicing. He lowered the gun and, without hesitating, without even aiming it seemed, he pumped three rounds into the intruder’s chest, right in the middle of the bull’s-eye. He kept his eyes on the target as he lowered the gun, and I thought of the man with the tattoos on his arms.
Dad reloaded and handed the gun to me again. It was fun, the way riding a dirt bike over a new course is fun---thrilling, a little dangerous---and I was already looking forward to the next time I could practice shooting.
I aimed and fired again. A hole popped open in the upper-right hand side of the cardboard, above the intruder’s shoulder. Had this been some man crawling in through the front window at home, I would have shot out the glass and put a whole in the elm in or front yard. Dad laughed but I aimed again and this time I got lucky and blasted a fist-sized piece of cardboard from the silhouette stocking cap. It wasn’t on the bull’s-eye, but made me feel better anyway.
Late that afternoon, Mom came home from work. Dad was outside in the utility shed and Mary was already at her job.. Mom went upstairs and then came back down in her stocking feet. She sat beside me on the couch and I closed my book.
“I am beginning,” she whispered, “to worry about your father.”
“Why?” I whispered back.
“Where is he?”
“Out back,” I said, “We don’t have to whisper.”
“He’s been anxious lately,” she said. “I don’t know. Afraid of things.”
Mom is a professional designer and works long hours in the summer, builder’s months. She had circles under her eyes. She was tired.
“I think every time he looks through the window he imagines a stranger. He looks down toward the end of the driveway, past the trees, and sees some strange, unshaved man lurking there, watching. He should get rid of that pistol.”
Sometimes I don’t understand Mom all that well and this was one of those times. I didn’t know why she was telling me these things, or what she wanted me to say. I told her I thought Dad knew what he was doing.
“Does he, Jeff? He can be wrong, you know.” She smiled. “You can be wrong sometimes, too.”
“I never said I couldn’t” I said, feeling warm around my ears. “You and Dad are fighting about his gun, aren’t you?”
Mom smiled again and touched the side of my face. I had asked the question matter-of-factly, but she took it sentimentally. “We’re not fighting over it,” she said. “Just discussing it. I told you, sometimes he can be wrong.”
The back door opened. We both shut up. Dad walked in from the dining room, looking at the two of us. He was dressed in blue jeans and an old sweatshirt. “What are you two talking about?” he said. “Me?”
“You seem even more paranoid than usual,” Mom said.
He climbed the stairs without answering.
“See what I mean?” Mom said. “He jumps to conclusions.”
“Mom. We were talking about him.”
“Yes,” she said. “But that’s beside the point.”
For a few days nothing happened. Dad called the police a couple times to check on developments on the man with the tattoos and the gray van. There weren’t any. He quizzed Mary about the parking lot at work. Was it well lit? Had she seen any strange characters? He remained unconvinced when she said everything was fine.
But even Dad seemed to have calmed down by the end of the week, nearly a month after the parking-lot incident. Saturday evening I was sitting in my bedroom with music turned up loud on my ear buds. The lights flicked on and off. Dad stood in the doorway and I pulled the ear buds out.
“What the hell time is your sister supposed to get home from work tonight?”
Mary has a deal worked out so she can leave work by eleven at the latest on weekends. I explained this to Dad. According to the clock on my desk, it was almost one-thirty. Dad said he’d called the Showcase. Mary had left work two hours earlier but hadn’t come home, and hadn’t called. This sounded typical of her. But it was dark outside. Tree branches clicked on the windowpane. A picture came to my mind of Mary in the back of a van with duct tape over her mouth. Dad’s anxiety was contagious and I followed downstairs to the dark living room.
The blinds were open. The shadow of a tree was cast by moonlight onto the carpeting. The window lattice cast the shadows of bars. Dad said he was going to the Showcase to look for Mary. He told me to let Mom sleep. He left through the front door. I watched the red lights move down the driveway until they disappeared behind the trees that hide our house from the road.
I sat on the couch. Upstairs a door opened then closed. My mother descended the stairs.
“Did he leave?” she asked.
“Yes. He went to look for Mary. She’s not home yet.”
“I know,” she said. “He didn’t tell me he was leaving. What are we going to do?”
“About what, Mom? Everything’s okay.”
“I hope you’re right.” She said she was going back to bed and that I should do the same. At the top of the stairs, she stopped and turned. “Jeffery,” she said. “Do you know where he keeps that gun?”
She must have known where he kept it and I thought she had some reason for asking my this question. I didn’t know how to answer, so I told her I wasn't sure. She nodded, then disappeared upstairs.
I sat in the dark, listening to the loud ticking of the living room clock. Then I got up and walked quietly up the stairs to the hall closet. The hinges squeaked as I opened the door. I reached up to the top shelf, felt around, took down the gun case. The key was downstairs in kitchen cupboard, but I didn’t need it. The box was unlocked, empty inside. I replaced the box on the shelf and went back downstairs to wait for Mary and my father.
Soon lights from a car’s headlamps shined through the front window and swept across the far wall. The car pulled into the driveway and stopped. I heard loud music, giggling, a bunch of girl-voices calling goodnight to each other. The car sped off. Keys rattled behind the door and the door opened.
Mary’s smile faded when she saw me sitting in the dark. “What are you doing up?”
“Waiting for you.”
“He's out looking for you.”
“Why can’t he just leave me alone?” She dropped her things on the floor and ran upstairs to her room.
Usually I found it amusing to see Mary getting herself into trouble. But when I heard Dad’s car coming down the driveway, I didn’t think it was very funny. He walked into the living room. He looked at Mary’s things on the floor. He asked if she was home. I nodded and he marched upstairs. I heard the hall closet door opening, a pause, then the hinges squeaking closed again.
Then Dad knocked on Mary’s door.
“Who is it?”
“Where the hell have you been, Mary?”
“What difference does it make to you?”
“Open this door.”
There was a long pause and Dad told her again to open the door. I went upstairs as Mom was leaving her bedroom. “Leave her alone,” Mom said.
Dad ignored her. He shouted for Mary to open the door. He shook the knob, the hit the door hard with his fist. “Leave her alone, Robert,” Mom said again.
“Mary, I told you to open this goddamned door!”
Dad let go of the doorknob. He held his fists at his side and I thought he was going to knock the door down. “All right,” he said. “Then you stay in there, Mary. Because you’re not leaving this place. Do you understand me? You’re through with that job of yours, too. You’re not going out at all, not for friends, not for anything. You can’t call home? You run around God knows where? I’m not letting you put us through this! Do you hear me, goddamnit?”
Mom was telling him to calm down and to get away from Mary’s door. He hit the door again and I said, “Dad, it’s okay, she’ home. We’re all home.”
He spun on me and I didn’t recognize him, he was so furious. “You shut up,” he said. “Do you hear me? Everyone shut the hell up!” He pounded down the stairs, shouting the whole way. “I don’t want to hear any of you talking to me!”
I started to follow but Mom held my arm. Dad slammed the front door behind him and we heard the car race back down the driveway.
Mary’s door opened. Tears streaked her face. “Where did he go?” she asked. “Where do you think he’s going?”
“I forgot to call,” Mary said. “That’s all I did.”
“I know,” Mom said.
We stood there a while in silence. Then Mom went back to her room, Mary went back into hers, and I went downstairs to wait for Dad. I dozed off and a long time later my mother was there, leading me upstairs to my bedroom.
I woke up as if from a nightmare---heart pounding, voice trapped in my throat---though I couldn’t remember dreaming a thing. It was not quite dawn. I went to get a drink of water, and passing my parents’ room, I saw a light shining from below the door. I heard voices---Dad must have returned---and I paused to listen. All I could hear was the muffled sounds of an argument.
I got my water and returned to my room. I wondered what the man with tattoos on his arm was doing exactly at that moment. Instead of going back to bed, I pulled a pair of jeans over my underwear, and put some running shoes on my feet, then went back into the hallway.
Wind moved through the branches of the trees as I walked down the hill in
our back yard. I slipped now and then on the pine needles, whose scent filled the air. I looked back at our dark house with the single light burning on the second floor. I wondered what the neighbors would make of a young man trudging across our back lawn at this hour, but no one was awake to notice.
I walked until I heard the small brook that ran behind our house. I smelled rain. There was now just the briefest hint of daylight to the east. I paused at the bank of the stream and hoped I was doing the right thing. I tossed the fun case and ammunition straight into the water. They were heavy, made a plopping sound, and disappeared into the water without a trace. I started walking back up the slope as the first few drops of a pre-dawn shower began coming down. The rain grew stronger and I asked myself what story I would tell my father in the morning, wondered whether or not I’d tell him something true.