Additional edits: 1981, 1987, 1996, 2003
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com.
Kanady follows the shoulder of the road. Alone. Under the flat package slung across his back. His feet kick pebbles and crunch on the sand. Every few steps he stumbles.
A stiff breeze tears through his coat. Kanady lets the package slide down his back, until it rests on the shoulder. He holds the package with one arm, turns up the thick coat collar, snuggles his head into the collar, stands facing back. The road, long and flat, twists out of sight two kilometers down. The evening light is bad. There are street lamps, every half kilometer.
He counts the lamps. “Four kilometers, max,” he thinks.
He holds the package out, balances it. It is wrapped in layers of brown paper and cardboard; long, less thick than wide—a slab.
“Like lead,” he thinks.
He watches the breath fog, strike the package, dissipate. It is clear he has gone too far to go back to town. He is more than halfway home. He can no longer walk back to town and hire a truck to haul the package. It is easier to continue. There is no other sensible choice. He will have to go on.
A shudder begins. It is the dark and the solitude. He inhales, hoists the package, hugs, lifts, turns, and stumbles on.
He listens to the soft crunch of feet on road. But what is that? He hears a sound behind. He slows to hear it: a patter, like footsteps. He pauses, hugs the package. The patter continues, faint, stops. He turns, looks back. Nobody is on the road. The chill bristles his back; the cold passes through like blood. With a shove forward, he resumes.
The pattering begins again. He stops, turns. It stops. Nobody is there. The footsteps were distinct, after each crunch a whisper, growing louder. He shakes his head, turns, pushes on harder.
There it is again, tapping, like a cockroach wrapped in tissue. He speeds up, walks more briskly, and they are there too, behind him. He stops. They stop. A moment passes. Then he goes on.
Roughly he turns and this time he sees it: a centimeter-tall figure. It must be half a kilometer behind. The shout doesn’t form—his blood is ice.
Kanady runs; runs, breathing in gasps. Metallic cold fills his lungs. He has to slow down to catch his breath. As he slows, the sound slows. It got faster when he ran. It sounds closer. The road starts to spin.
He stops. The steps stop. He stands, feels the breath come hard in and out. The dark figure is closer. It whispers. He cannot run any more—the package is too heavy. He checks the time: nine PM. He has been walking an hour. This walk usually takes forty minutes. Factoring the weight of the package, he judges home is still a kilometer away.
The terrain looks exotic. He has travelled that road almost daily, but always trying to get to town or return home. There was never time to stop and look. “Looks weird, but it’s the right road,” he decides. “Home is a kilometer.”
Kanady looks back. The figure is now two centimeters tall. He can just make it out: it wears an overcoat. Kanady cannot see the face—the overcoat flaps are turned up. It is so quiet. He wants to call out, but does not. He turns to walk, hears the figure’s footsteps on the shoulder. Kanady tries to ignore it; hopes for a second wind, stumbles, regains the pace.
Sweat breaks out on his face and shoulders. Why would anyone want to follow him? Perhaps the stranger wants his package. Straining, he speeds up. “Can I make it home before he catches up?” he wonders.
Kanady needs distraction. He thinks of his wife May opening her gift. Before he was a clerk. It was a long time without gifts. Two months ago the company offered a job managing clerks. The worst times are over. His new self—manager of clerks—will carry them to success.
The fear is gone. Now that he has decided to be a leader, the path is clear. One day he will manage the managers. The future is certain. They will buy a better house in a better place. Others will carry his gifts home from town.
He tries to forget the soft crunch of the stranger’s footsteps closing in.
It is Tuesday. She shopped. He looks forward to the hot meal Tuesday nights. Anticipating the meal, he chuckles. The stranger whispers behind him.
The house pokes up over the rise. Through the picture window May reads in the living room chair. She does not see him until he rings the bell.
As she gets up to answer it, he sees a face peer out the kitchen window. He puts the package down and waves to it. May opens the door. She sees the wrapped-up package, knows it is for her. The paper crinkles. Kanady comes in the door. She shuts it behind him.
“What is it?” she asks.
Kanady speaks in a flat tone and smiles. May smiles too. Her teeth flash. He thinks of fluorescent bulb glare on a Formica counter.
“For me?” she asks.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Pork. Stuffing. For me?”
“No, for your friend.”
“In the kitchen.”
She stares blankly.
“Can I open it?” she asks.
“Sure. Invite him in to see.”
He slides his arms out of the overcoat. It crumples on the floor.
“Invite who?” she asks.
“In the kitchen.”
May goes to the kitchen. Kanady lays down the package, follows her. She flicks a switch. The fluorescent bulb clicks, stutters, and comes on, bright. The kitchen is empty.
“I saw a face in the window. A man,” he says.
“Nobody is here.” Her voice chokes.
Kanady squints. She wears a dressing robe and slippers. The hair is tied up with an orange rubber band. The eyes are blue tinged with red. She is shorter by a few inches. She looks older than he remembers. The arms are limp at her sides.
“Something the matter?” she asks.
“Nah. Let’s go open it.”
They return to the living room in silence. She plops onto the floor beside the package. She runs her hands along the brown paper as if to smooth it, tears fingernails in. Out comes white packing fluff. She pushes it away. It drifts across the floor like clouds, sticks to the rug and gathers around the coffee table legs.
What comes into the light is a long crystal mirror.
“Beautiful!” she says.
She wipes the packing fluff off the mirror. He pushes the fluff into a pile with his feet. The mirror lays face-up on the floor. The room is inverted, her feet look huge. She looks up from it and meets his eyes. She smiles, shows her teeth, stands, steps, presses her body firmly against his. Her arms surround his neck.
She kisses him; her tongue slips between his teeth like milk.
“Thanks,” she says.
Together they lift the mirror and carry it to the bedroom. They straighten the legs out, tighten the screws that let the glass tilt in its frame. It stands firm. Kanady moves back, sits on the bed, wordless. May goes to the kitchen to get dinner. He sits and gazes, not moving except to breathe.
He saw the man who followed, close enough to know the man was short. Kanady wonders where the short man has gone.
The mirror stands on three legs. At the end of each, a three-toed animal foot is carved. The mirror reflects everything: the bed with its tan cover, the frill pillow, the desk with vase and dry flowers, the window, corner, door to the bathroom. The mirror reflects all, faithfully. Familiar objects he stopped noticing have suddenly become new. But the mirror does not reflect itself.
Kanady rises, goes to the mirror. It reflects brown hair, grey eyes, round face. Arms at his sides. He touches the mirror with his right hand, the left arm of his reflection rises, the left hand of his reflection touches his hand where it touches the mirror. He presses the reflected fingertips. They feel cool and hard. When he lets go, the frame rocks on its feet. The reflection of the room rocks.
As he enters the kitchen he thinks about the mirror, how it does not reflect itself. He stands in the doorway. His wife sets the table. The plates clank and the silverware chinks. She folds the napkins carefully. He remembers something then. He saw someone, in the kitchen window, when he was outside about to come in.
“No,” he thinks, “managers’ minds do not play tricks.”
She looks up at him and smiles again, her teeth flashing. He smiles back. She goes into the cupboard to get the tumblers. He leaves the doorway.
Kanady enters the living room and spots the pile of white fluff and strewn flaps of brown paper in the middle of the floor. His overcoat is also on the floor. He picks it up, puts it on. After buttoning two buttons, he bends to collect some of the mess, gathers it up. He presses it all together. Some falls out like feathery snow. He goes to the front door, reaches out with his hand, balances the pile and turns the knob.
“Going out?” she calls.
He goes out to the trash bins, opens one, still holding the garbage. He drops it into the can. Bits float down. He bends to pick them up. As he crumples them, he looks back through the window into his warm living room. Another face looks back out at him through the window. It is a man’s face. He drops the ball of paper into the can and closes the lid. He looks back. The short man stares. More than a face, Kanady sees the whole body. The short man’s hands press the glass. It bulges out like a bubble. It does not break.
Kanady approaches the bulging window. His breath steams, drifts. He goes up to the window, leans into it. The man inside the window does not react. His wife calls. The short man and Kanady turn simultaneously.
The short man goes into the kitchen.
Kanady expects to hear his wife shout, call, scream. “The man does not look like me. She will scream,” he thinks.
Kanady waits. There is no scream.
He walks around the outside to the kitchen window. The short man sits at the table. They talk, laugh. She serves dinner. They eat. A short man eats her husband’s dinner, and she does not scream.
“This is not all right,” Kanady thinks.
He stares openly into the kitchen window, stands back far enough so he is sure they cannot see him. They eat it all, except a ball of stuffing.
They sit back, talk as if they knew each other a long time.
She gets up, opens the door beneath the sink, dumps the remains of dinner into the trash bin. The short man puts a pot of coffee on.
He raps the window. The pair jumps, turns and stares toward him. The short man moves quickly to the window. Kanady ducks into the shrub. The short man looks out the window over his head. The short man says something. She laughs, but it sounds nervous.
Soon the table is cleared. They sit down to coffee and cake. He watches. Then there is liqueur. He can almost taste it, sweet, hot in the esophagus, the stomach, heat spreads out to the legs. They couple’s eyes meet. There in the shrub, he senses heat. He must do something.
Kanady breaks away and turns, begins to walk.
After ten minutes on the cold road a truck slows. He puts his thumb out. The driver brakes. The gears grind. The cab door opens. The driver calls down to him, “a lift?”
He climbs up.
In the cab it is quiet as metal. The driver begins a conversation. Kanady does not answer. He reaches toward the windshield, scrapes a mark off with a thumbnail. He is silent the entire seven-minute ride into town.
They pass the limit. A lit sign greets them coldly in the night. He tells the driver to let him off on the corner. The driver stops the truck. He opens the door, jumps down, knees bending, thanks the driver, swings the door back shut.
The shops are closed. People are asleep. There is a flickering blue light through a few windows; TV. He passes a clothing shop. The light from behind, a night bulb left glowing, silhouettes stiff plaster people. From behind him the street lamp glares on the window surface. It reflects patches of the quiet street. He jerks away from the reflection. Farther and down the street, a window flickers with dull neon. The sign commands:
Kanady looks in: a few people hunched over an iron counter. He pulls the door. It resists, then gives. The fryman is cooking something that smells like onions. He sits.
After a minute the fryman hands Kanady a menu. It is paper coated with plastic. The coating feels slimy. His eyes move down the typed column, glance over the prices. He stammers an order. The fryman looks far off, through the window. He turns and throws some soft objects onto the flat griddle. There is the fierce patter of heavy rain. The fryman waves the spatula, chopping lines in the onion smoke. He asks, “Corn or peas-and-carrots?”
The fryman lifts a silver lid. He scoops a steaming mound of corn in a lump onto the plate, walks to the fryer, lifts the wire basket, dumps the potatoes. Steam plays on the white plate. The fryman runs a hand through his hair as he sets down the white plate on the iron counter in front of the hungry customer. From a shelf under the counter the fryman pulls a bottle of ketchup, a paper napkin, a fork and knife burnished with wear. He sets them down.
Eating the grey yellow brown food warms Kanady inside. His skin remains cold. He cuts and eats the stringy meat, soaks the potatoes in ketchup. Sweet and biting, heavy. The corn is flavorless. The empty plate is greasy in some places, wet in others. Where it is clear, it reflects the ceiling, bare fluorescent tubes, ceiling fan (dormant), pipes, heat grate.
A woman gets up. Her clothes are stained and old. The belt hangs down from her coat by one loop. Behind the counter, the fryman follows her. From a scarred vinyl purse she produces a worn green bill. The fryman pushes buttons on the cash register. It clicks and rings. Numbers shoot into the window and the drawer opens. He takes the bill, clamps it down. Fingers poke into little compartments in the drawer for the change. He slides three bills out and counts aloud as he gives her the remainder.
“Four, five, five is ten.”
“Thanks,” she answers.
“Safe walk home ma’am.”
Kanady is finished. He draws the napkin across his lips. He is dry. He orders a coffee. It comes. He sips it. The first taste singes, numbs, so the bitter taste of the next swallows is dull. The plate and saucer show the ceiling, rippled, and the fryman’s thumb, huge, as he takes it, stacks it in the grey plastic bin.
Kanady does not want another cup. He brushes the crumbs off the coat, stands and pulls the wallet from inside his shirt. The wallet has lain next to his chest all day. It is cool in the fingers. The register churns, the bills and coins are exchanged. He turns and leaves. The door gives, opens, and the cold air feels to him like a dive into a pool. He leaves the fluttering humming lights and the tepid onion smell. He scrapes across the sidewalk; an oniony wisp trails him, mixes with the smell of gasoline.
The street leads Kanady to a green. This is the town center. A war statue among benches. He pulls himself across the dim grass, plops down on a bench, slides to the center. In the statue a metal man holds a metal scroll in one metal hand and a metal rifle in the other. Kanady wonders what kind of metal it is.
“Bronze?” he asks.
He does not answer. Embossed on the scroll is the word:
The street lamps, haloed, cast highlights on the metal man’s hair. The lamps buzz. Down one street he hears a car whisper, gravel crackle. Kanady’s eyes circle the town square. He leans against the bench back, quiet. Shops windows, bank, dark restaurant, streets trailing away. His breathing is regular, even.
His head lifts. He is chilled through. He had dozed. What seemed like a minute must have been hours. He stands, stiff and cold.
Enervated, he walks. Concentrating on the effort, he pushes along the sidewalk. He pauses at the diner. It is dark. The scent of onions fades. He touches the glass. It bends like a soap bubble. Curious, he lays his palm flat on the glass. It yanks all warmth from the hand. He pulls away with a jerk and shakes the fingers.
He walks. Nobody picks him up. The smell of late Autumn coming is strong and sour. The town floats by, as if deeply flooded. He goes down the long country road, lit by buzzing street lamps splayed every half kilometer. He counts nine of them before seeing his house against a purple sky. He runs to it. It is hard to breathe. Through the kitchen window he sees the sink, table. In the center of the table sit two liqueur glasses and a bottle, half-drained. He scrapes to the bedroom window. There are two lumps in the bed.
The front door is not locked. He would have remembered, for safety. He goes to the bedroom door. It is ajar. He pushes. May lays in bed alone. There is a place for him. She inhales and exhales slowly.
Kanady goes back outside, around the house. In the kitchen sit the drained glasses and bottle. In the bedroom, two lumps. He knows the second lump is the short man. The short man looks nothing—nothing!— like him. The short man inhales, exhales slowly. Kanady must do something.
Kanady strides back through the front door again, through the house, into the bedroom. He stands over the bed, where May sleeps. He pulls his arms out of the overcoat. It falls to the floor, crumpled. He undresses. Dropped on the floor, the clothing makes a limp pile. He gets into bed.
It is warm. But only the skin. Inside is slush. Kanady sits up, stares into the mirror in the dim morning light. He leans head on folded-back arms. The mirror reflects everything. Bed, woman, desk, vase, window, doors. Everything but him. And something else. He stares. Something is missing.
Kanady thinks about himself. He is no longer a clerk. He is a manager of clerks. It takes years of work to be a manager. Someday he would manage managers.
Once he did not want all this. He was small, did not aspire. He did his job only. He wanted different things. He had ideals. Now he is hungry. “Nothing wrong with that,” he thinks, “you want what you want.”
The realization comes that he can leave this behind, to the short man. Kanady can go, never manage managers, not reach what he sees. Others want it, too, other clerks. He manages clerks.
Kanady looks at the mirror, at a face that looks back. That is it. The short man’s face looks nothing like his. That is no manager of clerks, just a short man. If Kanady leaves, the short man can hold his place. But the short man cannot manage clerks, or managers.
Kanady decides not to leave. It is the house. It takes a lifetime to pay for a house like this. He must do something.
Kanady stands. The short man stands. Kanady approaches the mirror. The short man approaches, obedient as a clerk. Kanady touches the hard glass, grips the wooden stand in his fists. He lifts it, though it is heavy. He tilts it so it lays parallel to the floor. It reflects only his calm face and the ceiling with its dark lamp.
He slams it to the floor.
It is an expensive antique mirror with carved animal feet at the ends of its wood legs. The legs buckle, the glass smashes, loud as a car crash. She sits up, gasps.
“What is it?”
He stands, crouches, holds his breath. His eyes are slits. He holds the cracked frame. A glass shard drops out, shatters.
“You broke it. Why did you break it?”
On the floor: a pile of broken glass, and blood. Kanady crouches, holds the frame. His hands are bloody.
Copyright © 2003 Bob Jude Ferrante