A Man Like That
by Jennifer Wortman
I was at the bar, gazing lovingly at my phone to hide my hope and fear that someone would approach me, when The Fox jabbed my shoulder and said he’d fix me. To be precise, he said, “I’ll fix you good.” Then he sauntered away, disappearing into the crowd of consorting bar patrons, none of whom had to feign romance with their phones. Some of these people, I imagined, had been fixed by The Fox. If you asked someone what happened when The Fox fixed them, they’d just flash you a coy grin and avert their eyes. I hated the people The Fox had fixed, mostly because I was so broken I wanted to break myself. I woke up each morning with a massive urge to fling myself at the nearest wall until I’d crack open and the part of me that wanted to do such things would ooze free. I was pretty sure this wasn’t how a person was supposed to be, and yet, this was the person I was, which just intensified my desire to fling myself against walls. I had suffered some losses, some turmoil, a sexual assault or two, but what woman hadn’t? Why could I neither consort with the bar patrons nor stay home and languish in privacy?
Soon enough I spotted The Fox’s boulder-like head hovering between two sorority sisters. The sorority girls loved him. But so did hippie chicks and businessmen and biker dudes. Everyone loved The Fox. He cut an almost anti-fox figure, with his bulbous nose and round, towering form, the dark strings of hair streaming from his bald head. His nickname came not from his appearance but from his essence. He had the vibe of someone who might at any moment sit down at a piano and plunk out some jazz or, on second thought, slit your throat. Who wouldn’t love a man like that?
I tapped his mammoth shoulder. He wheeled around. “Do I know you?” he said.
A familiar panic galloped through my chest. My self-flinging urges were written all over me: my existence bothered people. I gathered my paltry courage. “You said you’d fix me. Back at the bar.”
“Ha!” he honked. “Just messing with you. How could I forget that face?”
Even I couldn’t remember my face. I avoided mirrors, so when I thought of my head, all I saw was a hole on a neck.
“What does it look like?” I asked.
He honked again. “Ab-so-lute-ly stunning,” he said. “Like a hole. On a neck.” He winked conspiratorially. Had there been any question, I now knew he was magic. He handed me a business card. “Come to this address, tomorrow at 8, and I’ll fix you.”
The next day, time slowed and my mind raced. My cubicle had flimsy faux carpeted walls that would yield to even a gentle body fling. My imagination had trouble utilizing these walls, and I’d have to consider a hallway, where it was doubtful I could build enough momentum for a good self-splitting. But now that I was getting fixed, my fantasies flourished, a last hurrah. I saw myself barging into my boss’s office and hurling myself at her fancy diplomas. The break room: I could slam into the refrigerator, destroying my colleagues’ healthful meals. Oh, and the warehouse, with its metal odors and cinderblock purism. Against those badass blocks, I would smash myself into a shattered bliss.
Urged on by such reveries, I showed up at The Fox’s an hour early. He lived in a brick apartment building with a shingled roof. His unit had a single concrete doorstep that conferred a dreary dignity: if only just a little, one must rise to enter. Cigarette butts and candy wrappers littered the sidewalk, and I felt at home in the scattered mess, so I paced as if I were home.
The Fox opened his door as if he’d been expecting me.
“It’s early,” I said. “I can wait.”
“It appears you can’t. Not to worry.” He waved me in.
His apartment was dark. The slat blinds, kinked with age, shut out the twilight. His navy-blue couch matched his t-shirt; the carpet was a wet-coffee-ground brown. It was warm, maybe too warm, just how I liked it.
“Sit down,” he said, motioning to the couch. He pulled up a black hassock and sat before me, his eyebrows jeweled with small beads of sweat.
I wanted to get on with it. I’d brought a wad of cash, all I had, birthday money from aunts who still treated me like the child I mentally was. I reached into my pocket. “How much?”
“I don’t want your money.”
“What do you want?”
“This is about what you want.”
“All I want is to be fixed.”
“Well, then,” he said, “let’s fix you.”
He slapped his thighs and popped up, disappearing into a back room that must have contained his bed, though he didn’t seem like he needed things like food and sleep, or even shelter. I studied my surroundings, looking for clues. His books, mostly poetry and history, stood in even rows on plain black shelves. He had a set of copper pots hanging from a rack, a vibrant bowl of fruit on the counter, a machine I believed to be an espresso maker. Familiar Impressionist prints lined his walls.
When he emerged, his hands cupped tenderly, he seemed like a different man, someone whose fixings would involve tea and a sympathetic ear instead of dark mysteries. For a second I thought he’d transferred into my palm the essence of love, for me to forever hold. But the pleasant pin pricks of tiny feet said otherwise. Perhaps it would be easier to call what he’d given me a vulnerability. A freshly hatched vulnerability, slick and ugly and warm with newness, its eyes slitted as if wearied by its first look at this world. When The Fox told me what to do with it, I didn’t believe him. He said it again.
“I don’t think I can,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “But you won’t get fixed.”
I really wanted to get fixed. I can’t emphasize this enough. For was I not also a vulnerability? Was there not some part of me that wanted someone to do to me exactly what The Fox had asked me to do to the vulnerability? Would it not be a mercy all around? I took a big gulp of air, closed my eyes, and squeezed. It cracked like a nut, a yellow, juicy, soft-shelled nut that released small wet streamers from its mouth. A warmth infused me, and I no longer wanted to fling myself against a wall. Instead I wanted to feed myself and slake my thirst and rest until I was rested and engage only in activities that ensured my survival and pleasure. Maybe I’d even take a peek at a mirror.
The Fox held out a paper bag and I dumped what I’d done inside. Then he led me to the immaculate sink, where he squirted soap into my paws and waited patiently while I scrubbed and scrubbed. Did I feel guilt? Yes, but I would take a beneficial action to make up for it, and another beneficial action after that, more beneficial actions than I could have done without my fixing. So even the guilt was a kind of hope.
“Thank you,” I said, throwing my arms around The Fox, whose body had become the bed I’d waited for my entire life, padded yet firm and invigorating, a springboard rather than sinkhole or slingshot. His conga heartbeat cheered me on. I turned toward the door, ready to saunter off in celebration, but The Fox gripped my shoulder.
“No,” he said. “Thank you.”
He tossed back his head, spun the bag over his mouth, and dumped in its contents. As he chewed and chewed, he watched me, his bright eyes glistening. His meal traveled down his throat.
“Please,” he said. “You mustn’t go. You haven’t paid me yet.”
Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. Her work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell. An Ohio native, she lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.
Photo: Birger Strahl/Unsplash