by J. Travis Phelps
available on Amazon
A Very Strange Man
The thunder and lightning crashed with a wail, and his wife who lay next to him sat up in the bed. Through the blanket he could see the light play across her worried face, revealing that she had not slept. As always, when he was not well, she had watched over him. But tonight her worries had been near hysteria. He had slept poorly while the fever had worked through him, watching silently as the shadows danced across the ceiling of their bedroom. There was a light sweat still on his brow, and the sheets were soaked through. Finally, the fever had given way. He had fallen into dreams he could not remember. As always, even an hour of uninterrupted sleep refreshed him. Now he peered sideways through the sheets, almost like a child, feeling momentarily protected. He was no child though. His body ached palpably all of the time.
“Go back to sleep,” he said, trying to calm her. “I have to get up soon anyway.”
She glared at him, swiping her hand across his forehead, and for a moment he felt truly as a child must when a parent comforts him. He thought of his own mother, now gone for so many years. One look from her had always made his fears evaporate. He allowed himself to indulge the emotion only momentarily, peering out through the canopy of the blanket, finally rolling himself away to the edge of the bed.
“You will work today then, even after all I have said?” she said with irritation. “Please don’t go; just this once.”
“No,” he answered, “I will eat and come back to rest as you wish. Look there,” he said, his face suddenly becoming animated, “the light is breaking through.”
And through the window, they both could see a beam of sun. The low clouds blew speedily past, seemingly headed to some faraway place, as though time was of the essence.
He walked silently down the hall to his bath, stopping only to catch his reflection in the mirror. It was a jolt. He had become old. His eyes were now permanently rimmed in red that no sleep could erase. His hairline was gone, only wisps of curls still clinging to his ears; there was nowhere left to comb it for protection or for artifice. When had it happened? In Spain? No, earlier. It was too late to care. He looked at himself and, as he had for years, started to make exaggerated and ludicrous faces at himself in the mirror. Each expression was ever more ridiculous: an old man chewing gumless at his food, an old man smiling proudly, then aghast with horror, then his tongue wagging in mockery, but always an old man. These expressions were all meaningless now. He felt almost none of those things any more. Every emotion had quotation marks. But the faces made him laugh inside. The only place left for him really.
“Fuck you, old man!” he said to his reflection. “No, fuck you!” he shouted, and it was funny because in real life he almost never swore. He burst into laughter, but then tears came without warning. They leaked. Emotions came over him suddenly and for reasons he could hardly explain. A condition of old age, not real feelings mind you.
His eyes would stay red for days now, but it felt good and wise to let some of whatever it was out. He thought of his younger friends and how they would talk behind his back.
“The old man is turning to crust,” they’d mock, “outlived his usefulness.”
They had said worse, no doubt. He stared at the scar near his throat, a gift from the war. Wouldn’t it have been better to die there so many years before? He thought of the blood he had seen so many times pouring from other men. He secretly thought it was a sign of weakness to bleed. He had never even once considered that anyone could kill him. And no one ever could. Sometimes he had almost strangely longed for it, but none would release him, as he had for them. It was unadulterated intimacy to take a man’s life with your own hands. You had to love people to kill them, and that he had. It was possible that no one had ever delighted in people more. The raw intimacy of a slaying was the pinnacle of that love, and there were a great many men he had made better through the killing. He had completed their lives in a way that no other act could. It was the very last thing you could give a person. He had never killed without feeling the sweetness in life though, the deliverance. It was beyond poetry, beyond books, and even beyond sex. Yet, if given the choice, he would never have killed anyone. He sometimes fantasized about turning himself in. But to whom? To men lesser than himself, who were guilty of far worse crimes? That would never do. It didn’t matter now. He wiped his face, hoping it would improve, but he only looked more disheveled, more pitiable.
He wouldn’t work today then. The worst of his fever had already broken and as always was in retreat. No sickness could take him; that much he knew. He endured illness quietly, barely letting out a moan, no matter how wretched he became. The business would be a bore, and today that was indeed too much, for his vanity at least. Still, at home, there would be no books to read either—not that he had not already read anyway—and no company that could bring him delight, nor a concerned wife, nor woman or man, nor food no matter how well prepared. He thought of running away for just a moment, and in his chest came an erratic purring. To start over. Where to? There was nowhere to go. He had been looking in the mirror for maybe thirty seconds now, no more. The agility of his mind sometimes astounded even him.
“Where are you going to go, old man, huh?” he said to the mirror.
A knock came at the door, jolting him.
“Sir, I am terribly sorry to interrupt you.” It was his servant Apollon. “I wonder if I may have a word.”
Abandoning the mirror, he slid his head through the doorway slowly while pulling the bottom half of his face down. “Yeeeeesssssssss?” It was the expression of an imbecile. Apollon, after all these long years, never quite knew how to respond to his jibes.
“Sir, your nephew is at the door.”
“Yes, indeed, sir.”
Apollon’s face drew up in a look of concern.
“He is not alone, sir; there is another man with him, a very strange man.”