Fiction
12.2 / FALL/WINTER 2017

WHAT STRANGERS DO

The third time Tyler was raped, he was walking home from a leading role on a Broadway stage. He saw the three masked teenagers coming toward him, didn’t run, didn’t flinch when they grabbed him. They took turns, whispering at his ear You like that? You want that? Tyler closed his eyes, felt every violation expand into the next until it was done and quiet and the kids were gone. The next night, bruised in places he could easily cover, he did his show to a standing ovation and walked the same way home.

*

Tyler married Ruth at nineteen because his mother needed a grandbaby and the oncologist had given her just a year to get one. Tyler loved Ruth, but sex with her turned his stomach. Her skunky bacterial odor left him limp, sometimes over the toilet hurling, which he couldn’t tell her. He didn’t want her to feel unloved. He’d be sick or distracted or stressed out by the trainee program at the bank. He riffed on excuses till they lay in bed like turtles on their backs.

When his mother died, he left Ruth, sold the house, and drove to Cincinnati, where he’d heard people would eat him alive. He took his sheet music, a bed-buddy pillow and a college graduation picture of his father. The stranger in the photo had aged backwards on a shelf for years. Now just a year older than Tyler, the man—lying on the dashboard in Tyler’s car—looked more like the brother he’d never had. Tyler drove fast, sang every pop song on the radio. He couldn’t get to Cincinnati fast enough, to this place where people were hungry for him.

*

The second time Tyler was raped, it was a sweet-smelling WASP in a button-down and khakis, a tendril of ink curling up his neck. He wanted it rough. Tyler thought he was joking or didn’t know what rough really meant.

“Hey, little brother, short-cut through the park?” He touched Tyler’s arm and Tyler followed. In shadow the man stopped, leaned down, kissed an ear, the neck. Then he slammed Tyler’s head to the ground, yanked an arm behind his back. Each slap of the man’s cold hip brought a waft of green apple Head&Shoulders. Tyler’s right arm broke in waves. Three snaps, then a dullness.

The ER doctor said the residual nerve damage would worsen with age. He’d have to get used to a new normal: an ache so empty it wants to explode, the doctor didn’t say but Tyler knew what he meant. He’d had no business “walking home” through the park. It was illegal after seven and, one nurse added, “perverse.” The police officer said if Tyler couldn’t give him a description, they’d never find the man. Tyler said, “It was dark.”

*

When Tyler was sixteen, his mother gave him ten dollars every Thursday and sent him off with his Twenty-four Italian Songs and Arias to Ms. Winifred, an elderly woman who’d once sung opera on a stage. A proper lady as thin and hard as a mannequin, she tapped red metronome nails on her chair’s armrest as Tyler lilted “Caro mio ben” a thousand times.

“You’re a doll,” she’d say as languisce il cor died away in the room. “Sing it again.”

His mother said he should start thinking of going to the conservatory in Cincinnati when he graduated. He could get a scholarship or a grant for adult children from a one-parent home.

He mentioned this to Ms. Winifred the next day.

“Baby!” Ms. Winifred said. “They’ll eat a little country boy like you alive!”

That evening between double and final Jeopardy! Tyler asked his mother what strangers do. “What kind of question is that?” she said. “When they love you,” he said, “do they eat you? Alive?”

*

Tyler’s first male sexual partner, the instructor who raped him, kneaded Tyler’s diaphragm like dough and said things like Push against me. Push as hard as you can, told him he was the best singer at the conservatory, grabbed Tyler’s ass and said The music starts here. You have to feel it here. He pressed a fist into the small of Tyler’s back, said Stand straight like you want it. Like you’re ten feet tall. Tyler was going to be big, so big that—naked and curled up on the instructor’s couch, staring at four pictures of a wife and two kids on the instructor’s desk—he didn’t understand what had just happened until he heard If you tell, I’ll kill you then the zing of a man zipping up his pants.

 

 

Christopher Allen’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Eclectica Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and lots of other great places. He’s won some awards and come close to winning more. Allen was both a finalist (as translator) and semifinalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017. Originally from Tennessee, he now lives somewhere in Europe and blogs at I Must Be Off!


12.2 / FALL/WINTER 2017

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