by Stephanie Mankins
Not a consideration. Not even a consideration.
I thought of you that night. It was late, but not yet dark, not quite. Had it been dark, black dark – no way. No way I’d have gone up there. But the sky was grey and I remember thinking how unfamiliar it was –a strange, solid gray, monochromatic in a thick way, which made it seem closer than usual. The cobblestones were slick. My foot slipped, slid into the spongy mud, and the wind whipped around us. The wind does that here – comes tunneling between the buildings in a rush for the open sky of the park on the hill, across the street.
If the wind is water and the channel between the buildings a river, then the park is a delta, and we stood right at the mouth. We stood, me shifting my weight from foot to foot, and waited for the light to change. It’s long light, and there’s a depression there, where the water pools deep and wide, so we’d stepped around and stood beside it. The wind pushed at our backs as we waited. My companion was patient, mindful of the wet, and I smiled and reached down to touch her.
The signal changed and we started over, the once-reflective strips of the crosswalk ground down, dull and diminished. Almost to the other side of the street, and just a few feet before the step up to the sidewalk, there’s a shiny brass key embedded in the asphalt, all of its details erased, pressed flush and polished by years of tread and traction. I look for it every time I come by this way.
Nina bounded up the granite stairs, three sets. I walked. She waited at the top. She does this whenever she’s off leash and running ahead of me. She’s only comfortable going so far and then she has to stop and wait and make sure that yes, I really am following her. Once Nina saw me, she took off for the grass, where, whipping around a few feet past the white curb, she’d spread her paws wide and lower her head to bring my body into focus against the horizon.
I saw my dog, looked past her, saw no one else. There was no one else there: not the teenagers, the ones who sit at the far end, the ones who pretend they’re not fucking – the girl always straddling the boy, the horizontal wooden slats of the bench pressing into his back; not the two white terriers from next door, they weren’t there, and neither were the pair of Ridgebacks. No one came jogging around the short loop that encircles the main field. The playground was empty.
Then I saw him. He was sitting alone on a bench to my right. He was wearing an oversized black leather jacket on top of a gray hoodie, the hood pulled up and over his head. I couldn’t see his face, not really.
I picked up a stick and threw it into the field. Nina chased it and I followed her, moving out of the trees and into the open. She barked as she skidded past the stick, scrambled to turn around.
From the bench where the man sat, which was behind me now, I heard, “Get your fucking dog out of here!”
Sharp inhale, cold air. I kept walking toward my dog, away from the man.
“Get your fucking dog out of here, you fucking cunt!”
Cunt? That’s all you got? I thought. Really? That’s predictable, and boring. But that’s not what I thought then, no, that was three, four weeks later. At the time, when he yelled ‘Cunt!’ I thought of you walking from the pumps up to pay, wearing a thin t-shirt and no bra, driving through the south, a road trip by yourself.
“I said, get your fucking dog out of here, you fucking cunt!”
I looked down for a stick. I looked, head down. I looked. I reached down, found a good one – the right length, not too pokey – picked it up, pulled it back. Nina took off. I hoped I could throw it far enough to get it in front of her five, ten feet. So lame to throw a stick and have it land behind the dog, fuck.
“Cunt!” he yelled.
Thin t-shirt, hot and humid, breasts bouncing. He followed you out of the gas station, out onto the highway. He pulled up beside you at 60, 70, 80 mph, leaning over to roll down the passenger side window, to scream at you, scream at you, yelling ‘Cunt!’ over and over and over and over again.
Nina was far on the other side now.
“Cunt!” the man screamed again.
You weren’t wearing a bra. You weren’t wearing a bra. Thin t-shirt. Hot and humid, your nipples pressing into your thin shirt. Wiping your hands on your jeans, the greasy gasoline slick on your fingers. Why weren’t you wearing a fucking bra?
I called for my dog.
He was trying to run you off the road, yelling as he swerved his car toward yours again and again. He wanted to kill you. You knew he wanted to kill you, wanted to run you off the road and into some ditch, in Alabama, I think, wanted to pull you out of the car and into the woods where no one would find you.
I looked around me. A smart woman would get out of here. I turned to walk out of the field, back toward the trees on my left. If I kept walking away from him, I thought he’d quit yelling. I put my hands in my pockets, felt my phone.
“Get your fucking dog out of here,” he yelled. I could tell he was still sitting on the bench behind me. “You fucking cunt!”
I rolled these three words around in my head, in my mouth. Rolled them until they were smooth and round like stones from the bottom of a river, until my lips parted and the sound started at the back of my throat, air forced up from my gut, the hard ‘C’ pushing the ‘uh’ forward, the ‘n’ barely squeezing through as my tongue pressed into my hard upper palate, the final ‘t’ created by a quick re-opening, a short jet of air. Cunt.
I thought of you again, only this time, you weren’t a woman without a bra in a car alone in Alabama, you were a girl, calling the police all those times. You were so bold!
“It’s against the law, you know, to mistreat animals,” you told me later, so matter of fact. I thought about how your parents had reacted, how they’d said, “It’s just not what people do.” How they’d said, “You don’t call the cops on your neighbors.”
I’d never called the cops on anyone. I’d never dialed 911 in my life.
I stopped walking and pulled out my phone.
“This is 911,” a woman’s voice. “What’s your emergency?”
I looked down at my feet. This is stupid. I should have just left and gone home. Just some crazy asshole.
“I’m in Mt. Prospect Park and there’s a man threatening me.”
“You’re in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn?”
“No, Mt. Prospect Park, it’s between the library and the Botanic Garden on Eastern Parkway.”
“He’s threatening you? What’s he saying?”
“He’s yelling at me. He keeps calling me a ‘cunt’ over and over again. He’s really scaring me.”
What’s he wearing? I told her. What does he look like? I started . . .
“Is he black, white or Latino, M’am? M’am? Is he black, white or Latino?”
I told her about the hood, and how it covered his face.
“Do you want me to send officers?”
Why did she think I called her? Is that why I called her? The ground was wet. My sky was close overhead; it was the cover of tree limbs. Yes, I did.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
A woman with a young pit bull pulling on its leash walked by, heading in the direction of the man on the bench. I noticed the others, now, too: a couple on the far side of the loop; another dog in the middle of the field, its owners huddled near the cluster of trees broken by last month’s freak wind storm. I turned around and walked back out into the open, looking fore Nina. I didn’t have to leave. I wasn’t alone.
The man started screaming again, only now it was the woman with the pit-bull, not me. Only this woman didn’t walk away, she stood her ground and looked up, gave it right back to him, a voice loud and full of fucking and Fuck you andDon’t you talk to me like that, asshole and Don’t you talk about my dog. I stood still and watched and listened. To her.
That was a month ago. Last night, my husband’s cousin came by to drop off some books I had loaned her, and yours was one of them. I was eager to re-read the story I’d thought so much about lately, but I had to wait. There was dinner to prepare, the kids’ bath and their bedtime routine, the kitchen to clean, the living room to pick up.
Finally, I was in bed, and I flipped through your book, looking for the story. I found it and started to read. I’d forgotten all about the circumstances of your situation – why you were driving back up north from Florida alone, why you had gone to Florida alone in the first place – but I’d remembered the details of your old car with no air-conditioning, the loud Neil Young playing on the stereo, and how in the heat your body clung to the vinyl seats.
I came to the scene at the gas station, and this time, knowing what was going to happen next, I marveled at how gruesome the men inside the convenience store seemed. The first time I read the story, I took my cue from your sparse descriptions and didn’t give the men much thought. I was completely focused on you, as you yourself seemed to be. This time, though, I saw malevolence lurking in every sideways glance, a malevolence that was paradoxically magnified by your lack of details.
You pulled out of the gas station and back onto the empty interstate, and not too long later, he pulled up beside you and began with the tongue gesturing. Paragraph after paragraph, I read, my anxiety building as the situation unfolded. You gave him the finger, your confidence fueled by your anger, and he started yelling. You recognized him from the gas station. He started punching the air in your direction, shouting how he was going to kill you.
This is where the word ‘cunt’ should be, I thought, but it wasn’t there. I kept reading, waiting for it to appear in black against the white paper, but the only specific words I found were “ You whore” and “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.”
I stopped and put the book down. I started to go back to beginning of the interstate scene, just to check to see if I made a mistake, but I knew I didn’t. There was no ‘cunt’. There never had been. I made it up. In my mind, I had supplanted his death threats – all his raging lunacy – with this one word.
* * *
Stephanie Mankins is originally from Texarkana, Texas. Currently working on her MFA in nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence, she was a math major at Brown and worked for years as a touring musician. She plays a four-string bass and a six-string guitar. She has written over a hundred songs, has recorded and produced a number of bands, and has made a bunch of records with her husband. They have also made two kids. Stephanie is working on her first book.