Apr/May 2022  •   Fiction

The Peddler

by Deya Bhattacharya

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

It rose like a monolith from the dead-grass surface of the hinterland, and Tyler knew from 30 paces away it would be perfect. Against the bulbous moon it was inky, solid, limbless, but close up he could see the components of the dilapidation and make his plans. There through the front grilles he would hang the sign, hand-painted on the back of the banner peeling off the left flank; there at the door they could pay cash; and through the pooped-over windshield they could see a friendly face in a black stocking mask if they wanted to. All along the right flank were gaps through which hands, legs and other things could be slipped—he would layer tape along the edges to guard against scratching—and where the headlights had been, he could place candles as beacons of hope. The tires were cruddy but intact, the ignition key was fitted in and waiting. Tyler brushed away the cobwebs, turned the key with a grip accustomed to fighting rust, smiled as the engine roared to creaky-yet-defiant life, and spun the truck, crud and all, until the right side was invisible to those approaching from town. Somewhere beneath there was a yowl. He tugged the key out and nodded.

Advertisement was next. The hand-painted banner was up and drying in the sun before noon the next day, but it was the visit to the local bar wearing the black hooded cloak and the standing up on the wooden table and the sing-song rhetorical asking of the customers whether they'd seen the new business set up just at the start of the highway, that would make the real difference. They'd come in a group later that evening and purse their lips when they saw the banner and tell each other it ought to be reported, and sometime around midnight they would start coming back in ones and knock. Meanwhile he had lit a fire and done his business in a clump of bushes, joined by the cat whose tail he had run over the previous night. He had a scratch on his wrist from where it had swiped at him, and it had a cut on its hind leg from where he had thrown an open tin at it. They would go on to become great friends.

All around the truck there was grass, as far as the eye could see on every side, sun-roasted and sharp-edged. He grew used to the cuts and wore them like bits of webbing—criss-cross ridges on skin from which the life had long been flayed out. Only his hand was soft, from blobs of Vaseline slathered nightly onto the palm and fingers up to the wrist. Nails he kept filed but not cut; they could be called upon sometimes to tease out feelings when plain touching wasn't enough. Different services had different rates—just at the end was cheaper than all the way through; more than 15 minutes to get there meant an extra 50 percent—and instinct born of long practice told him how fast or slow to go, how rough or smooth the person outside would like it. A bit of yanked-out bumper made a good shelter for supplies, and there was always grass enough for kindling. The draper's in town came to know Tyler was bumming it and gave him a blanket and pillow for free. "Rolls up small so you can carry it around, but keeps the cold out as good as any of that animal-skin stuff." "Why, thank you," said Tyler, accepting the bundle. Only the night before the draper had asked him to go slow, slow on that special place above the ankle while he worked on himself under a fur-lined coat.

There was even a ladies' circle in town, run by the widowed Mrs Fletcher. She took to feeling sorry for Tyler and had asked him over before a week was out. He did his duty respectfully and well enough to get her to gasp out a near-confession: "Oh Ty... Ty, if you knew how lonely it gets sometimes!" And then she had been quiet for a bit before sitting bolt upright and asking him whether he thought this town was very money-minded. He desisted from telling her everyone was and said instead, "I love the spirit that exists here." And he meant it, to the point of thinking about it as he boiled water for tea or wiped himself with handfuls of the softer grass. It was an old-world sort of thing small towns like this tended to have—they liked the desolation and the challenge it posed to existence, and their own successful dealing with it. Here at the truck it was mostly self-service they wanted, the space and quiet to do what they had to without anyone overhearing or the trouble of cleaning up, and of course there were some who needed help, and not always in the usual way, and for them Tyler had his hand. Did they recognize each other, these respectable townsfolk, as they shuffled back and forth through the dried grass? Back in the daytime they'd meet him square in the eye and dig among their produce for the freshest pieces to give him, and Tyler looked them back in the eye and marked down the rates on the banner.


After about ten days, the topic of the prisoner came up. He had been sensing it would happen for a while, from the too-long pauses between the questions about how Tyler was liking it here and the glances they would give each other, as though they were collectively weighing his worth against that of the secret they were obviously keeping. It finally happened one evening at the bar, when the bonhomie of alcohol had settled enough to take the mind off immediate jollities and onto the thoughts one would push aside or coat over during the daytime, and it was the bartender himself who brought it up. She wasn't a real prisoner, he was quick to add—she had everything she needed right when she needed it, and the barn was as spacious as spacious could be. But after that, well, incident (her own son, murmured the draper), they'd deemed it wise to not let her be out and about. Oh, and there was the matter of the chain. Purely nominal, the bartender added, and not restrictive by any means. She could lie down and walk and even dance if she pleased, and they'd made sure the toilet was close enough so... well. A simple affair, and it saved them the trouble of dealing with the police, and they didn't believe in police systems in that town anyway. "That's true," said the town's sole officer from where he lay across three barstools. "We don't."

When Tyler arrived and knocked on the door of the barn, the woman who answered showed no surprise to see him. She was perhaps a few years older than himself and wore a loose checked dress with dirty lace along the hem. Dark hair was twisted into a braid and draped over her shoulder. The inside of the barn was sparse yet scrupulously clean, and she knew all about him from the woman who brought her breakfast.

"This business of yours, you've been doing it... how long?" she asked.

"Ten years."

"Harry would have been ten this winter." Her brow furrowed.

"Who'd have thought. He was always so tiny. Still fitting into his things from six months when he was two. They say I killed him, you know," she added.

"And did you?"

"Did I? Sometimes I wonder. Is it called killing if you just forgot? He'd caught something. Needed medicine every half hour. And I... I was tired of him crying, you see. I just wanted a walk to myself, nice and quiet. When I came back... they said he'd coughed himself to death. I used to teach, over at the schoolhouse. But after Harry they wouldn't trust me around the children anymore. Or anyone, for that matter."

"And so here you are."

"And so here I am. I suppose they told you about this?" She lifted her skirt to show him the manacle, about three inches broad, just above her ankle.

"They implied it was, perhaps, prudent."

"Well, there's that, and there's the other thing—the one they need me to stay still for."

It took him only seconds to understand.

"As you can tell," she flashed a smile, "they like their extras in this town."


Among Tyler's regulars was the town pastor, who would come in full church regalia—collar, cossack, peaked cap—and ask in his soft voice for Tyler to rub the soles of his feet very carefully with the Vaseline, in circular motions, please, thank you very much. He had been drummed out by his share of pastors, even the ones who'd come to him—guilt, no doubt, or complaints from too many old-timers. Most towns, however, were grateful to him, owing to the fact that vice rates dropped remarkably wherever he went. People who robbed and cheated out of pent-up frustration now had a space to themselves and thus saw no reason to intrude on that of others; and even hardened sinners were less inclined to sin after a prolonged session or two. A sin it might be in its own right, according to the Bible, but how much calmer than the other kinds, how much less likely to stir up discord. And the best part was, one could walk away after and slip right back into a world where even to think of such things was wicked, let alone doing them. How his father had thrashed him for it! Dirty bastard, he had said, dirty filthy bastard. The mother, as always, had wept and told Tyler his father didn't mean it. What she did not know was Tyler had seen his father practice that same punch on a tree trunk that very morning, hitting it harder and faster until his knuckles were bleeding and he was ready.

"And what did your mother say to that when you told her?" asked the woman in the barn.

"I never told her. She wouldn't have believed me. For her, you see, my father was king. And strangely enough," he added, "one could maybe picture him as a sort of king. An ex-king, maybe, someone who'd lost his crown and kingdom and everything else. Except he was still a king at heart. He still wanted to rule. And we were all he had, my mother and I. So we got the brunt of it."

"He can't have taken it well when you left home."

"Do you mind what they do to you?" he asked instead.

"As you can imagine, I don't have much option."

"And do they give you anything in return?"

"Sometimes they bring nicer food. Things their wives have made. I like that part," she said with a little nod. "Especially when it's cake or meatloaf. The draper's wife, she makes the best meatloaf, though I'm not supposed to know it. The draper hasn't stopped by that much lately. Not many of them have, since you came along."

"My apologies."

"Do you know what it feels like," she swept a hand across the barn, "to know the only people who want to come see you are the ones who want to take you?"

"They used to tell newly married women to lie back and think of England."

"I suppose I could think on my sins," she reflected, "but it's funny how the more time you have, the less you want to think about stuff like sins. And one needn't, not when there's so much else to think about."

"And what do you think about?"

"Just at present, meatloaf."

As he watched the people through the slats of the truck and the ways in which they each found themselves, he would wonder what had led them to that first exquisite acquaintance with their bodies. A new sleeping position, perhaps, or an accidental brush against a surface, and then the repetitions of the motion, slow, quick, slow, quick, to see what it could be that felt this good? The draper's son had started coming, a boy of 12 or 13 with springy hair and a sort of sloping walk like he'd been shot years ago and never fully healed. Eager, so eager, and almost surprised when the finish came, looking down as though he'd spat a child out instead of merely the seed, and not knowing whether to feel like a louse or a man. He'd soon want more, though—at his age men needed flesh, willing or otherwise. Tyler thought of the woman in the barn and imagined the draper's boy looming over her with a foil-wrapped plate as payment, and it was with near-envy that he accepted the quarters the boy always paid with. The woman in the barn had been interested, rather than surprised, when Tyler evinced no interest in her flesh.

"Although I suppose, doing what you do, it'd be kind of a busman's holiday." And Tyler, seeing no need to tell her his secret, said only, "I don't have a wife to cook you meatloaf." She, in turn, had declined Tyler's offer of his services. "I'd rather not get a taste for pleasure and then risk expecting it from the others, too."


The older folks were going to bed earlier, staying out less. The bar started selling mulled wine, and business at the truck grew slack. Soon it would be winter, when Tyler would need to decide how he would live the next three months, and where, and on what. Meanwhile Mrs Fletcher was showing up more often, accosting him at shop entrances and offering to stand him lunches, dinners, pies. He expected each time to be taken upstairs after, but she seemed oddly reluctant to do so, making a point instead of being seen with him by choosing the tables nearest the windows and talking loudly as she ate. Her father, his dealings with money, his success at something she never quite spelled out, the stash of gold coins he'd hidden away and given her to save for a rainy day when she married, "and he never found out about it, my husband, not in 12 years, and all the time it was right there under the bed in my mother's old suitcase," she giggled. Or else she would clutch Tyler's hand and fix round eyes on him and ask him not to judge her by how she seemed, that there was more to her—simpering—so much more.

On some nights after a glass too much wine, he would allow himself to think about it—a steady life, a fixed home, a woman in bed—and it wouldn't seem that absurd after all, even if one allowed for his secret. Except for the cat. Mrs Fletcher didn't like cats, had said so right off while watching the draper's tabby up on the post box as though she'd like to strangle it. When Tyler had told the cat at the truck about it, she had sneezed, as though in disapproval, and then turned her back on him and slipped away into the bushes and never come back again. And then there was the prisoner, of whom his thoughts were veering out of the realm of just thoughts and threatening to become desires, plans even—plans that went as far as breaking her out of the barn and taking her away with him. In his line of work there was only one role for her, but perhaps she might like it better if she had a say in the hows and whens and a share of the pickings. They could make a joint business of it—special services, perhaps, billed as double the handwork, double the fun.

On an impulse, he crept out one night and went to see her about it. She was willing enough to play along, and they spoke glibly of choosing a moonless night and nicking the keys to the manacle and keeping to the tall grass as they ran.

"What I want to know," he said, "is why you haven't tried to get out before."

"There's nothing particular I'd get from being out there."

"You would," he paused, "be free."

"Free from what?" She laughed bitterly. "It's always a fight for people like us. A fight for food, for shelter. Never mind if you're in a barn or out in the jungle. I'd be free of this chain, maybe, but what does that really mean? I'd only be chaining myself some other way. Or maybe not. Maybe I'm just afraid. Afraid I don't know how to fight for my life, afraid I've gotten too used to chains. I don't know, I don't know."

She paused and gave him a look. It was a long, long look, betokening both appraisal and a quiet certainty, as though he were a planet whose existence she had confirmed after many nights of scrutiny through the telescope.

"But with you, perhaps, it might be worth finding out..."

And it could have still passed without consequence, except for the fact that Tyler had left the door ajar all this while—that, and they had been standing so close, to someone in the doorway it may well have appeared that they were kissing. There was an intake of breath and the shoving open of the door, and they turned around to see the heaving figure whose silhouette exposed all too clearly the fatness and thick nose that was Mrs Fletcher.

"I'll have you strung up like chickens," was her parting threat.


They were waiting for him the next morning, in a half-moon around ten feet away from the truck.

"Mrs Fletcher brings news, Tyler," said the butcher. There were flecks of old blood on the head of the mallet he was thwacking against his palm.

"She says she's taken a liking to you, and she's made her intentions plain, and you... you have agreed to marry her."

"Is that so, Tyler?" said the bartender.

Tyler looked at Mrs Fletcher, who was standing a little apart from the men. She was wearing a suit of blue wool and staring dreamily at her shoes, a little smile at the corner of her mouth.

"Because if it's so, we'd like it very much," said the draper.

"Very much indeed," said the officer.

"Nothing like marriage," said the bartender.

"You're almost one of us already, Tyler," said the butcher. "And if you were married into us, well, we could start afresh, you know? A new life, all friends together, never mind what came before that. Little mistakes," thwack, thwack, "wouldn't matter any more."

"And what we're saying is, why wait?" said the bartender.

"Why indeed? When everything's settled already," said the draper.

"So we're expecting you tomorrow morning at the church," said the bartender.

"Eight o'clock. No need to worry, we'll arrange everything," said the butcher. Thwack, thwack.

"We'll enjoy having you with us, Tyler," said the officer, his uniform patched at the shoulders and chest with something brown, the color of old moss.

Tyler spent the evening drinking the last of the tea and depositing the leaves near the front left wheel of the truck where a shoot had sprung up, against all odds, and was already growing thick around the stem. He washed himself at the stream and washed his only other pair of pants and filed his nails and the growth on his face, and when he could no longer think of things to do, he made his way to the barn and told the woman what had happened.

"And so?" she said at the end.

"And so," he said, "it appears I am to be congratulated."

"You'd actually marry her?"

"She has money."

"And your trade?"

"Henceforth a purely private and exclusive practice."

She tilted her head and watched him.

"She can't cook, you know," she said. "Mrs Fletcher."

"Then it appears I'll have nothing to offer you."

"In that case," she moved forward, "I guess I should make good use of tonight."

And swiftly, expertly, she undid the girdle around his waist and pushed the trousers down, and a moment later she was staggering back and screaming breathy ragged screams, at the sight confronting her below.


The odd part was he couldn't remember now whether his father had screamed. He must have spoken, or at least vocalized, when he saw what Tyler was doing in that little hollow behind the bush. Already he was practiced at the art, had been working on it since he was even younger than the draper's boy. The pressure of a finger, the swift stroke of a well-placed palm—how much they could achieve! Tyler, slimly built and rendered slimmer by the meals he would skip to avoid his father's blows, would tuck himself into the smallest of spaces and tune his craft until it sung. His father had to have screamed; and yet it was as though a massive silence had been thrown over that portion of Tyler's life, starting from when the father had pulled him out and towards the abandoned cages near the cottage, up until his rescue the next day. There was a story about those cages—that they had once housed poached animals, or worse—and as he had been flung inside, the shadows of those animals had seemed to spring up and grab him. And Tyler had looked up and seen the red face of his father looking at him through the bars of the cage and thought it no realer than the shadows, and when the face had withdrawn and the moonlight had burnt out and the plain black of the night had been peppered with snow, it had all seemed like a farce, a never-ending silent movie in which he had been told to star and where the director had left no instructions before signing out.

By the time they finally found him, the cold had eaten through a leg, half of an arm and a baseball-sized patch of his middle. He remembered an arm with a bulls-head tattoo pulling him out and onto a stretcher, and he remembered a chorus of voices as though from the other end of a very long tunnel—"out here all night" "not even a coat" "miracle he's still breathing." It was truly a miracle, as they told him later, what they had done to restore the collection of impressions and body parts the night had turned him into. The arm had been cut off up to the elbow; the leg had been saved with minutes to spare. The middle, though—they had been unable to look him in the eye as they told him, or even to tell him anything beyond the fact that he would have lost both legs if they hadn't acted as they did. He had listened all the way through without speaking, and he had left town the same day without speaking, either, and when a hundred miles along the way the man he had hitched a ride with had stopped the car and demanded payment, Tyler had said nothing, not a word, only reached out with the hand the frost had spared. It had taken years for him to pick up the ropes of the trade—experimenting, starving, surviving the occasional assault—to know just how to present himself at each new place, how to be discreet enough to not make friends but to not make enemies, either, and the only thing keeping him going through all of it was knowing what he was doing was something they couldn't do without. It was in human nature to undo oneself, over and over again—over money, over people, over pride—and this, the most natural form of undoing, was what he was helping them do without fear. And they would hate him for it, but they would love him for it, too. Gods were all well in their place, but he—he was the real savior. He was needed.

She was getting to her feet now, and he could see it working out on her face as though it were print, what she would do unless he stopped her. It was not the first time he had had to defend himself, but it never got easier, as he had learned long ago—it never got easier, any of it.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, pulling the knife out of his coat sleeve.

A nick to the jugular was all it took. She went down without much of a cry, knees-first, then toppling backwards, the chain clattering as she hit the ground. He stood and watched as her twitches stilled and the blood bubbled out, and as he replaced the knife, a shaft of moonlight threw into focus the absence at his front, the knitting-over of wounds cruel and lasting.

"But you see, this is the only way I can set myself free."


And so it happened, over before he knew it, himself in a black suit dug out from Mr Fletcher's cupboards and Mrs Fletcher in the white gown she had worn the first time around and still fit into with a few extra stays and a strap around the stomach to hold it in. The pastor officiated at the church, and everyone joined in for the party at the bar. The same men who had approached him with mallets the other day now held him about the shoulders and laughed, toasting him with cider, hustling him off to the Fletcher home with good-natured asides about the night to come. There had been a moment of panic when Mrs Fletcher had pulled him close and undone the laces of her gown, but then she had slumped onto the bed and told him with squeezed-shut eyes she was above all a good woman, a good widow, and she could not so easily give herself to someone new even though they were married, but that she knew her duty to him as a wife and she would do it, willingly, if only he might give her some time. She was sorry, and he was the soul of kindness, and so he got away with what his hand could accomplish, which was enough. Early next morning he went downstairs while she was still asleep and walked out, having helped himself first to the sack of gold coins under the bed she had kept a secret all these years from Mr. Fletcher. He stopped at the general store to buy a case of Vaseline—the store owner, an ex-family man himself, would say nothing once supplied with some the coins.

"Where you headed?" was his only question.

"Back," said Tyler, gesturing towards the expanse of road that led nowhere and everywhere at once.

"It'll be good to go back, I guess."

"You know, you're right," said Tyler, fingering the knife in his pocket, "I never really thought about what it's like to be so long away from home."