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Cannibals [Fiction]

By Sue William Silverman

Because of the rape, Gregory knew the woman’s name was Sheila. Every night for the last month he watched her ar­rive alone at the bowling alley at seven, a crimson satin patch across her left eye. She stood at the approach line, a bowling ball gripped in both hands. Trying to feel closer to her, Gre­gory pressed against the counter of bowling shoes, where the air smelled of foot powder and sweat. Sheila stared at the pins, her body rigid. He stared at her.

She always bowled alone. He imagined she lived alone, even though before the rape –which had occurred in the park­ing lot behind the bowling alley – she bowled with friends. Her friends had never returned. The first night she returned he no­ticed a switch-blade knife inside her purse when she paid him for the bowling shoes; he suspected she hadn’t carried the knife before the rape. Also since the attack, she wore this eye patch. A crimson elastic band, securing the patch, circled her head of waist-length, straight, blonde hair. He wondered about the patch, because he hadn’t heard or read that the unknown assailant had injured her eye. He wanted to be able to give her back her eye.

At the sound of Sheila’s ball exploding into the pins, the fat on Gregory’s body shivered. She’d swung the ball, al­most pitched it, harder than she used to, before the rape, faster than he thought a woman of her slight build capable. In the movement, her hair spun forward. She flattened six pins, and the pinsetter swept into action. She watched the remaining pins, her fists on the hips of her tight jeans, her slender shoulders, for the moment, taut with power. She had another ball and three more frames to go. Gregory kept track. There wasn’t much business tonight, a Thursday. He liked to listen to the rubber balls as they thudded onto the alleys, then swished down the lanes, devouring wood. That’s what it sounded like to him, before the balls shot silently into the pit.

 

Without a word, Sheila placed the blue, rented bowling shoes, size five and a half, on the counter. Even though she stood just the other side of the counter, because of her rigid body, it felt, to Gregory, as if she were farther away. He re­trieved her pair of black, high-top tennis shoes. Every evening when she deposited her shoes with him, he slipped his hand inside to feel the warmth from her feet. He loved the way the warmth spread from her feet, to the shoes, to the pads of his fingertips, up to his palm. Tonight he’d noticed one of the laces had frayed. Maybe he’d buy a new one and replace it tomor­row while she bowled. She took her shoes, barely glancing at him with her one, cool, slate-gray eye. In the fluorescent light, the satin patch gleamed.

Gregory hurried from behind the counter. He stared out the plate-glass window streaked from melted snow. Sheila held the knife in front of her, her elbow stiff, as she strode across the parking lot, not mindful of shadows. But Gregory knew she should be mindful, even with the knife. Maybe the knife wasn’t sharp enough. Maybe he should check it for her. You could never be too careful, too sure, and he worried someone might hurt her again. This time, however, if anyone attacked her, he’d rush outside and save her, even risk his own life. No one helped her before. No one heard or saw anything, until after the man with the gun ran away. Then, after, she screamed.

Now she slammed into her Buick and swerved onto the highway, barely pausing for the rush of cars. He’d already memorized her plates: 214PTE-Jersey. Sheila turned right toward Bergenline Avenue. He held his breath until she was safe in the flow of traffic, heading toward home. He knew where she lived. One night last week he slipped out early and followed her.

At midnight, Gregory left the bowling alley. He pulled on his ski cap and parka. The frigid air sliced the skin of his eyes until they watered, but, because of his fat, the rest of his body was warm. There was enough fat to keep Sheila warm, too. He wanted her to want his fat. She was thin and sinewy. He imagined her bones must feel brittle and cold, especially in winter. Gregory walked slowly, delicately, and his flesh felt like soft rubber against his bones. Comforting. Like another presence. He sat in his Chevy. He didn’t want to go home. The car smelled of rancid grease from empty containers of burgers and fries tossed onto the back seat. His apartment didn’t smell much better. He hated his apartment. Across the highway, patches of snow and ice gleamed from the yellow neon lights of Daisy’s Diner. He could get a slice of pie, but he didn’t feel like trying to cross the highway. The neon sign of the bowling alley flashed across his windshield: a white ball crashing into pins, over and over.

Gregory drove to Bergenline Avenue. He wouldn’t ac­tually stop at her small apartment house he’d seen her enter – not tonight – but he liked to cruise past just the same. Along the curb the plowed mounds of snow were covered with soot. There wasn’t much traffic. Even though he drove slowly, his rusted muffler scraped pavement every time he hit a pothole. Finally he saw the sign of the Chinese carry-out, The Blue Lan­tern. Next to it was her building. The scent of orange and ginger must float, he thought, through the walls, filling her apart­ment, filling her thin body. He imagined material, like tapes­tries, hung on the walls. And she slept on the floor, on a thick mattress of satin cushions and silk quilts cushioning her, com­forting her body. He wondered where she kept the knife while she slept. He wondered if she took off the patch before sleep­ing. As he passed her house he slowed, glancing back. A light shone in a window on the ground floor, rear. A stoop led to a back entrance. If he stood on it, he’d be able to see through the window.

When Gregory reached Weehawken, he turned toward the Palisades, above the Hudson, and parked. He stayed in the car, the engine idling. Across the river, from the Verrazano Bridge toward the George Washington, the New York City skyline looked ablaze in white heat. Gregory wanted to carry Sheila into these lights to warm her. He imagined her eye under the patch looked like slivers of gray sleet. He imagined the rape, her body frozen against icy asphalt. He wanted to protect her – he could – under his layers and layers of fat. He wanted to give her enough nourishment so her eye would grow back. But he was afraid to talk to her, didn’t know what, exactly, he’d say. As he watched the lights they seemed to glare – etched cold, hard, white against the night sky. He looked away and shiv­ered.

Gregory lived on Fulton, in a small, rear, furnished apartment, without a view. From upstairs came the sound of Latin music from the Cubans. He slammed his door – maybe they’d hear he was home and turn down the volume. He won­dered if Juanita ever thought about the night she’d come downstairs. After it had happened, when he’d seen her in the hall, ­she pretended not to notice him. Just as well. He didn’t want any trouble from her husband.

At the end of the alley was a high-intensity light, and Gregory could see his way into the tiny kitchen, a closet really. No need to turn on the fluorescent, make the place look worse than it was. He took a package of chicken bacon from the fridge, leaving the door open.

His cat perched on the Formica counter, waiting for dinner. Gregory slid onto a stool and ate half a slice of un­cooked bacon. He set the other half on the counter. The cat batted it with a paw before eating it. Gregory was out of beer, but he was too tired to go to the convenience store on the corner. The motor for the fridge clicked on. He didn’t shut the door. He liked the sound. Why not let it run since he didn’t pay utilities? He paid plenty for the furniture, though, furniture that smelled, it seemed to Gregory, the same as the foot powder in the bowling alley, had smelled this way, before he’d even moved in.

He knew he should eat all the bacon, but he didn’t. He’d always been fat, had always wanted to be fat. He liked the way his heft made him feel, as if he were two people rather than one. But since Sheila’s rape he’d lost his appetite. This was the only time he’d ever stopped eating. His body felt as if it, too, had been wounded, so deeply it no longer knew how to nourish itself. While his body had enough fat to live on for a while, still he worried about it, worried about losing too much weight. Sometimes at night, unable to sleep, he thought he heard his body gnawing on itself, gnawing closer and closer to bone.

He lay on the bed, and the cat crouched on his thigh, kneading its paws in and out. Gregory tried to swipe it off, but the cat dug in its claws, holding on. He unzipped his fly. Gently, he edged out his penis. His breathing sounded as if it came from depths and depths of flesh – dim but deep – a reassuring echo he’d be able to hear forever.

He thought about Juanita, the woman upstairs. Late one night, a month or so ago, he heard screams, beer bottles. When he opened the door to yell for quiet, he saw Juanita stumbling down the stairs. Wordlessly, she entered his apartment, her lip bleeding. She wore a lavender, full-length slip, except the shoulder straps, he remembered, were gray with wear. She sat on his couch and pulled up her slip, although that hadn’t been what he’d had in mind. Rather, he’d thought of comfort­ing her with beer or iced tea. She wasn’t thirsty. He didn’t know what to say since he didn’t know Spanish; she didn’t speak much English. She couldn’t stop crying. She wouldn’t speak. So he did it for her, believing she’d feel comforted. He wanted to make her feel better, make her happy, and she had stopped crying, he believed, for that short time. The moment they fin­ished, though, she left.

The cat curled on Gregory’s thigh. He still rubbed him­self, faster now. His breath rushed. All the flesh on his body seemed to sway to the rhythm, as if he were dancing. With Sheila. Again he thought of the crimson patch. He imagined slipping the elastic from her head, his movements slow and deliberate, a few strands of her long hair catching in the band. He unraveled them, almost one at a time. Her whole eye was closed. His fingertips caressed the satin over her other eye, before he lifted the patch. The skin beneath was pale. He traced the mark from the patch from below her blonde eyebrow to the sharp edge of her cheekbone. Yes, the injured eye looked life­less, like slivers of gray sleet. He dropped the patch on the floor and leaned closer to her, where she slept on her bed of pillows scented with ginger and orange. His lips parted. Gen­tly, he blew on the eye. His warm breath would melt it. His body would warm her, in a white heat. He pressed against her. He wanted his fat to be enough to nourish her. He wanted her to be soft again: warm, safe, whole. Finally, the splinters of the eye quivered from his breath like a silver puddle of rainwater in a breeze. He licked the eye. He pressed his tongue against it until he felt the warm, wet shiver of membrane, healing.

Gregory moaned. His hand slowed, then stopped. He glanced up. His cat still curled on his thigh staring at him, its eyes luminous in the dark.

With a small fury of her wrist, Sheila heaved the bowl­ing ball down the lane. Gregory watched her, her high-top ten­nis shoe on the counter. He’d bought a shoe lace this afternoon to replace the frayed one. His fingers shook slightly as he poked it through the black, plastic eyelets. Maybe he shouldn’t do this, he thought. He almost hoped she wouldn’t notice. Her ball smashed into the pins, flattening eight. From the abrupt movement of her shoulders he could tell she breathed hard. Her thin legs seemed tense. Later, when she exchanged the shoes, she didn’t mention the lace. Her cool slate eye barely glanced at him before she left.

Again he went to the window to watch her. This time she floored the accelerator and shot across the highway into the parking lot of Daisy’s Diner. An oncoming car screeched and veered to avoid hitting her. From this distance, her body seemed as thin as a blade as she left her car and slipped inside the diner. In the glass, Gregory noticed his own reflection. The skin on his face seemed pale and bloated, his black eyes hollow.

He turned from the window. The lane where Sheila had bowled was empty. He picked up a sixteen-weight, cradled it to his chest, then rushed toward the approach and slung it with all his power. He could barely distinguish the shape of the ball – just a blur – as it thudded past the foul line, past the spots, down the lane, and into the rack. He saw it explode into the pins, but he couldn’t hear it. For a moment the bowling alley seemed silent. Through the soles of his shoes he felt vibrations from balls on other lanes crashing, before falling, plunging into the pit.

 

That night when he left he, too, went to Daisy’s, except he crossed the highway cautiously, waiting for a long break in the traffic. He slid into a vinyl booth and ordered a burger and fries. He needed to start eating again. Fluorescent light hard­ened the white counters. Across the linoleum floor, a smear of brown snow melted. Gregory flipped through the selections on the table jukebox: mainly oldies, a few country-westerns. Noth­ing he felt like hearing. He smothered his food with catsup and stared at it. He took a bite. He barely chewed his food anyway, but even if he chewed it into bits, he knew he wouldn’t be able to swallow it. The back of his throat felt tight. He didn’t know what was wrong. He wondered what Sheila had eaten, prob­ably only a slice of pie. He glanced at the pie stands on the counter: apple, cherry, lemon meringue. He felt sick. He used to be able to eat a whole pie in one sitting. He had to be with Sheila. Maybe he’d be able to eat again if he were with her.

 

For a moment he sat in his car in the lot. Sleet slashed the windshield. The same kind of night as the rape. If only he’d seen the man attack her. If only he could have rushed outside and flattened the man against the asphalt until he’d crushed him under his weight. If only he’d saved Sheila. He switched the ignition. By now, the windshield was glazed. He turned on the defroster, letting the engine idle. Cars drove more slowly along the highway. He eased out into the traffic, heading toward Bergenline Avenue.

He parked by The Blue Lantern and stood beneath the sign, pretending to read the menu taped to the window. The glass was steamy. Inside, the air seemed deep blue, impenetrable. Dusty, stunted jade plants crowded the sill. The smell blowing out the vents wasn’t bad, but he was afraid to enter. He wasn’t sure what Sheila would like, and he was terrified he’d order the wrong item. But when he stood on her stoop and she answered the door, at least he’d have something definite to say: I’ve brought you Chinese carry-out. I want to eat it with you. If he didn’t knock on her door, or if she weren’t home, he could always leave the food on her stoop, and she could eat it later.

But she would be home. She’d invite him in, he imag­ined. They’d sit on the floor, on cushiony, silk pillows, in a cocoon of red and gold scarves flowing from the ceiling. Chop­sticks ticked the plates. Her hair smelled of smoky Oriental incense. Their faces were tinged in a blue viscous light, and the patch on her eye darkened. Mysterious. Forbidden. To all but him. She’d bend close to him. She wouldn’t have to speak; he knew what she wanted. He was the one chosen to slip the patch from her eye.         To him, she gave the injured eye as a present. Every night before they slept he’d caress it for hours, warm and deep, with his tongue.

As he walked toward her apartment house, sleet made small whips against his face, but heat from the food, even through his mittens, warmed him. He’d bought sweet and sour pork with rice, and he balanced the cartons, one on top of the other. The steam, the aroma, rose to his face, but now he worried maybe she wouldn’t like sweet and sour. Or maybe she wouldn’t recognize him or understand why he was here.

Her house had gray asbestos shingles. All the lights in the front of the house were off. He walked to the side where a narrow driveway sloped steeply down to the back. Her Buick was parked next to a garage. Like last night, the windows in the bottom rear were lit, the shades drawn. A cement stoop with a few stairs led to the back door – her own entrance. Probably everyone else in the building was sleeping. He could go down the driveway, climb the stairs, knock on her door. If it weren’t her apartment, he could simply excuse himself – wrong apartment – mistake. People always made mistakes.

The driveway was slick with ice. Sleet fell harder, and as he bent into it, it pinged the back of his neck. He skidded, then slowed his pace and walked sideways for better traction. A row of galvanized-steel garbage cans, the sides dented and pocked, glinted in the light from her windows. The cars crunch­ing through snow on Bergenline sounded distant. There was no noise from any of the apartments; storm windows and blinds were pulled tight.

Again he skidded. And slipped. He dropped the car­tons to break his fall, and his hand slammed onto the ice.            His foot hit a garbage can. When it crashed into the others, the lights in Sheila’s apartment went out. There was nothing to grip onto, he was unable to stop himself, and he slid down the drive on his hip. When he reached the bottom, he lay back. His skin felt frigid and stiff. His palm stung. He pulled off his mitten and pressed his hand to his icy cheek, to numb it, soothe it. Above him, the heavy, wet sky seemed to press down on him, pressing him to the ground.

Gregory crawled to the cartons. The top of the sweet and sour had opened and some had spilled. Steam rose from the food, seemed to be rising from the icy ground. As best he could, he scooped the pork back in, then wiped his hand on his jacket.

Cautiously he walked to the stoop, keeping close to the side of the house. With the lights off he suddenly felt exposed; perhaps she watched him out the window. He wasn’t as sure, now, about what he was doing. But he’d come this far. He couldn’t stop.

His feet must have crunched into the ice on the stairs, but he didn’t hear it. All he heard was his breath, slamming. He stood on the stoop. His teeth chattered. Usually his fat kept him warm, but a chill shook him. He pressed his forehead against the door, as if the pressure could slow the shiver.

The door wrenched open. The sharp light reflected a flash of metal: the knife. He squinted at it, as if the metal blinded him. She stood, blocking his entrance into the foyer. He gripped the cartons to his chest, frozen in the door frame.

“What the fuck you guys want from me?” she said. She pointed the knife at him. Her hand shook.

Dazed, he didn’t know how to explain about the food. He tried to hand her the cartons.

“What? You think I’d eat that?” she said. “I’d feed it to the roaches first.” She pointed the knife toward the rug, just inside the door. “Put it there.”

He placed the cartons on a green shag rug covered with lint.

“Now your jacket,” she said. “Unzip it.” He did, and he tried to step into the foyer. “Stop right there,” she said, moving closer to stop him. “You’re the fat man from the lanes. I thought so.”

She held out her arm until the point of the knife dented his shirt, over his stomach. Her slate gray eye, fierce, yet cold, stared straight at him. He longed to look away; he couldn’t.

“What’re you doing here?” she said.

“Food,” he said. “Just to eat.” He nodded toward the cartons. “I want to eat it with you.”

“Bullshit.”

To nourish you, he thought, but he couldn’t say it. He didn’t know how to explain he could keep her safe, didn’t know how to explain he wanted her eye to grow back, or how he had trouble eating since the rape. Past her, in the living room, he noticed a green vinyl couch, its seams ripped. Then he noticed dark fragments strewn across the shag rug: dead roaches.

“And my shoe lace,” she said. “Why the fuck you do that?”

He glanced back at her. “I can help you,” he whis­pered.

“I don’t need your fucking help.”

“But your eye – ”

“My eye – ?”

With a harsh movement, she slid the patch to her fore­head. There, it gleamed like a third eye. The eye beneath squinted for a moment. The eyelid fluttered, and then she stared straight at him, the eye whole and undamaged. From the way it stared, he felt as if an icy wind whipped his face, like the wind off the Hudson River.

“That’s what you came to see,” she said. She pressed the tip of the knife harder against his stomach. “Now get out.”

“But dinner,” he said. “Just the dinner. I can’t – haven’t been able to eat since—” He felt a hard, cold nausea rising in his throat. He believed he’d never be able to eat again. Ever.

“Leave me alone. You think I don’t see you sticking your fat hand in my shoe?” She pushed the knife harder. With­out looking, he knew she’d pierced the skin. He felt a few drops of blood dripping down his stomach. “Don’t touch my shoes again. Don’t stare at me. I don’t need anything. I don’t need you.”

 

With the window rolled down, Gregory sped toward the Hudson. He hadn’t zipped his jacket or turned on the heater, and cold air blasted his face. When he reached the Palisades, he left the car and climbed onto the rocky bluffs. Looking down, he thought about bowling balls plunging into the pit, falling, silently falling. Far below, the river seemed suspended, glacial. Across it, in the City, the skyscrapers looked like icebergs ris­ing from the river, the lights opaque as cataracts, milky with frost.

He pressed his stomach, the small wound. The smear of blood made him feel as if fat oozed from his body, leaked out the slit in his skin. He slid his finger into his mouth, touching it to his tongue, tasting the blood, slightly salty, like the smell of rust. Suddenly he was ravenous. Now, he believed, he could chew, could devour, every layer of fat on his body. He sucked on his finger, sucked on it, with his tongue curled against it: warm, wet, tight.

 

*

Sue William Silverman’s most recent memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. Her two previous memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN-Headline News, a documentary on the Discovery Channel, and more. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Please visit www.SueWilliamSilverman.com for more information.

 

 


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