E
Jan/Feb 2011 Fiction

The Bad Man

by Michael Peck


She knew the Bad Man was somewhere in the house, perhaps out front in the barn. The uncertainty and the fear of his presence made her miserably happy, and I could not supply that kind of happiness, much as I tried. Her stalwart belief in him bordered on the occult, and over the course of eight months, it had only managed to intensify.

Dorothy was staring out the big front window and hushing me; she was sure she could hear his crystal footfalls coming across the lawn.

"Part of me," she said, "wants to believe in his existence to justify my search for him; the other part of me hopes he has either died or has never existed at all... this to justify the pointlessness of my search."

I sipped at a glass of orange juice and watched her from behind the refrigerator door. I was probably watching her in the same way that she was watching for him, a look of unhurried disbelief blended indistinguishably with dread. Very slowly she turned on me as though infected with some new hybrid strain of rage.

"Are you him?" she asked. "Are you the Bad Man, Donald?"

"No," I said. "Not at all. Not in the least, I swear. Do you want me to be him?"

"I don't know," she said. "Part of me does. The other part doesn't."

Dorothy had waxen skin and brownish-red hair bunched on the top of her head, always covered with a purple beret. That day she was dressed in dark jeans, a white polo shirt, and white flats. Dorothy was twenty-six, a year older than me, although she had aged noticeably in the past weeks. Her light brown eyes, once alight and alive, had recently shrunk to pervasive slits of suspicion.

"You might be him after all." Dorothy grabbed a cardigan from a hook and wound it around her shoulders. "I'm going to check the barn."

I waited ten minutes before following her. It was early evening in a frigidly wet autumn. The air stank of moist fields and dead fish. I sucked in some of the fog and coughed. Dorothy was standing on the gravel drive a foot from the barn door. Oddly, she didn't appear agitated.

"Well?" I said."

"I haven't checked. There doesn't seem to be any noise from—"

"Shouldn't you investigate anyway? He might be concealed in there and quiet because he knows you're out here."

"Part of me wants to check in order to prove something; the other part doesn't want to check in order not to prove something else."

"What does Dorothy think?" I said.

She hadn't heard my question.

"What does Dorothy think?"

She was not listening.

"I think he's in there," she said dramatically under her breath. I pushed the door in. Dorothy stayed outside, craning her neck around the door-frame. Someone had left the old dangling light bulb switched on; it sputtered dully and gouged at the patterns of fog creeping in between the planks. The barn was empty. From the look of her grimace, I thought Dorothy was preparing to scream.

"He's not here," she said.

"That's right," I said. "There doesn't seem to be much use in trying."

"Oh dear Christ!" she said. "Oh sweet fuck! What don't you understand?"

The moon was out for some reason.

Dorothy came into the barn, utterly frazzled, and stood in a stack of oats. Something in her gaze reminded me that we were lost to one another, lost in the vagaries of her secret whim or golem or whatever the Bad Man represented. I chided myself for attempting to satiate her. But we were in the barn, and Dorothy was clasping onto my arm.

"That means," she said, "that he's in the house. For fuck's sake."

"Come on, then," I said, trying to lead her out, "and we'll investigate together."

"Part of me thinks that's the best thing to do; the other part can't distinguish what the first part's motives are for thinking that way."

"Come on."

"Absolutely not!"

We spent the night in the barn, with the light on. Dorothy lay saliently on my chest, wide-eyed and listening for any indication of the Bad Man's lurking presence. Some of the oats slipped down my throat while I slept, and several times during the night I awoke choking. In the morning I couldn't walk and had a tortuous headache. I was lying on a thin scattering of hay. I was also alone.

Sun crept in through a crooked slat in the door. I pulled myself out of the hay. Dorothy was sitting on the front porch of the house. I hobbled over.

"I can't walk," I said.

"You must try."

Just then Mrs. Humble appeared at the end of the driveway. She was eighty-four and almost deaf from nineteen years as a lead percussionist for some minor philharmonic. When Dorothy saw the old woman approaching, she stood, muttering low.

Mrs. Humble said, "Hello."

"Hello," I said. Dorothy was busy peering through a window.

Mrs. Humble took my hand.

"Poor Donald," she said. Her face was kind, her voice soothing. "Did Dorothy make you sleep in the barn again?" I nodded gravely and saw that she was wearing leather sandals and white socks.

"We slept in the barn all night."

"Well, it's a good thing you have a barn, at least."

Dorothy vanished around the side of the house.

"Yes, it is," I said.

"What are you going to do?" Mrs. Humble asked.

"Please don't ask me that," I mumbled.

"What?" she leaned her right ear forward and dropped my hand.

"Please don't ever ask me such a question!" I said very loud, but as gently as I could. "A man in my position should never be asked that unless he asks it of himself."

Dorothy appeared from the other side and began scrutinizing the gutter that rose up to the roof. A recalcitrant trickle was ebbing on the dirt.

"I've tried talking to her," Mrs. Humble said. "One day, for example, I visited and spoke to her about her unnatural behavior and the effect it was having on the both of you. Dorothy was sitting next to me on the green sofa, and for all I knew she was listening. Then in mid-sentence, when I asked her what she planned to do, she stood up, dialed the phone, and said into the receiver: 'Hello is Mrs. Humble available? I really need to speak with her.' She hung up and sat down beside me and didn't say a word. Strangest thing is, I live alone, so I can't imagine who she was talking to." Mrs. Humble turned away. "Well, Donald, things are the best that they can possibly be. The world is wondrous sometimes." She walked steadily away. When she reached the mailbox on the road, she waved. I waved back.

The Bad Man was apparently in our house.

"I think he got in this way." Dorothy said, looking at the drain pipe. "He just refuses to leave... Donald?" She came over to me. "If you care about me at all, or at least about the idea of me and us, you have to talk to him."

"I care about you." I was exhausted and tried to show it.

"You have to talk to him, then."

"You know what Mrs. Humble said to me?" I rubbed my face with both hands.

"No. I hate that woman. She represents everything I despise in myself. But the other side of me—"

"Oh, shit!" I threw my hands up, as far they would go, and scowled my way through the front door.

After a debilitating search, we concluded that he must be somewhere else.

"Maybe he left town," I said.

"Don't be an ass."

"Is there something ridiculous about him leaving town?"

"Yes."

For the moment Dorothy was at least partially satisfied. The part of her that was capable of rejoicing did so. I eventually persuaded her to join me for a lunch of salami sandwiches.

That night we attempted love. Ever since the Bad Man had materialized into our lives, Dorothy had been hesitant about sex; a mere touch would send her into an adjoining room. It had persisted for an entire year, interluded with those rare phases of tenderness that seemed to rejuvenate our relationship until the next bout of indifference and delusion.

I lay embraced on top. My lazy, uncoiled penis was somehow nestled inside her. Dorothy was distracted by the ceiling, where the Bad Man would purportedly appear at any moment. We remained that way for many minutes before I toppled loose to the other side of the bed, facing away. A shy hand found its way to my thigh and moved up.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Nothing."

"What is it?"

"Nothing at all." I shuffled further away until I was teetering on the edge of the mattress. Dorothy snuggled in close. Her tousled head hovered above my own.

Outside the window a large tree bristled with the wind. One branch incessantly beat upon the glass. I was glad not to be alone with her.

"Donald," Dorothy whispered. For an indescribable moment I thought she was returning once again to that part of herself that was herself.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm sorry... Why am I apologizing? I don't need to apologize. I haven't done anything wrong!"

The tapping branch.

"You shouldn't apologize," I said. Within myself, I felt an exquisite camaraderie with the branch, inching back and forth patiently, nowhere surprising to go.

"I just know the Bad Man is here somewhere. Somewhere very close." She maneuvered onto her back. "Him with his crooked Romanesque nose and sculptury frame. He's a giant, really."

I flung myself out of bed and into the bathroom. A little less than ninety seconds went by before Dorothy knocked.

"Who the hell is in there?" she asked.

I threw the door back.

"The Bad Man doesn't exist!" I shouted. "Jesus Christ!"

"Part of me—" she began, then paused, dank eyes gleaming. "Maybe he doesn't know he exists!" she said.

I stormed back into the bedroom. We faced each other in the center of the bed cross-legged as though competing for silence. I teared loudly into my sleeve. Dorothy patted me on the head.

"What is this?" I blurted.

"The Bad Man is what this is." After that I could say nothing more. Wrapped tightly around one another we sobbed ourselves into a humiliating sleep.

The following day was Saturday, and Dorothy was packing her belongings into the cardboard boxes we had used to move in three years previous. I hadn't seen her this confidant. She briefed me on the motivations for her departure, which were obvious, then asked what she should take with her and what she should leave behind. Part of her didn't want to go; this part, she finally admitted, was the negative part: the destructive, but at the same time, sincere part. The part that was sincerely her. I asked, what about the Bad Man? and she said she didn't know what to do about him. Since he was my creation, he obviously had to be disassembled by me alone. That was one alternative, I told her, and she replied that that alternative was the only alternative.

Before she exited with the last box, she glanced in every room and closet for the Bad Man. Finding him nowhere, she took the box to the idling van and double-checked the rear, under each of the two seats, and beneath the rusted undercarriage.

"Well," she said. "He's not here."

"Well," I replied.

"The Bad Man's in the barn," she said.

We had been happy once.

"And," she continued, "My parts are fully integrated into my being. One part knows this is true."

"Goodbye," I said weakly. I tried to hope that she would come back and failed.

"Yes. Donald, I suggest that you no longer sleep with both eyes closed. I know I don't need to tell you this, but he appears sometimes when you sleep."

The van pulled away slowly. When I was sure that she would not return, I peeked into the barn. The Bad Man was crouched in a corner.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece