Stella Ridley Fifteen

15

The Strange Man

One night after a particularly spectacular thunderstorm had subsided into a steady rain tapping its million fingers on the tin roof of the house, we heard an odd noise as we were on our way to bed. We both paused at the bottom of the stairs. It sounded briefly as if some very large creature was thrashing and lashing about in the mud, then we heard a tiny thud, and then the front door flew open and he was suddenly there five feet in front of us, the deranged tufts of his hair oddly backlit by the lights of the car he had driven through the flowerbeds right up to the front of the house. (Stealth was not, apparently, part of his plan.)

He wasn’t a tall man, probably only slightly taller than Aunt Deena, and he was dripping wet, standing at the terminus of the muddy, wet tracks he had made into the house. I looked at him as if I had all the time in the world, noted the dark, glistening eyes that seemed to sit askew in his face, the damp skin, the stiff, too-new jeans and worn sneakers, the wet maroon sweatshirt. Even at a distance he gave off a powerful sick animal smell that was topped with a piercing metallic note similar to but not exactly like the high metal smell of fear or anger (the olfactory equivalent of that infernal, relentless fluorescent buzz that drives one insane in large department stores). He was shaking violently, and the small knife (not an axe—I had to stress this repeatedly to Molly later) he was clutching seemed to dance around like a drunk firefly whenever it reflected the night light in the entryway.

Everything about him said “I am The Strange Man.” Lord how I wished at that moment that Molly could see what I was seeing.

“Don’t say a word!” he said—unnecessarily, I must say, for we were both speechless. Miss Monkey trotted up to the Strange Man as if he had called her, and then she proceeded to sniff his legs in a leisurely way before hissing in his general direction and then sauntering back to us. The Strange Man’s eyes followed Monkey as if she were some loathsome, threatening creature and he even hissed through his teeth. It was as if he had forgotten himself and we were witnessing something private that we shouldn’t see. Then he looked at us and shouted, “Give me all your money!” in a way that was so like some childish imitation of a movie bad guy that I had to suppress the barking laughter that welled up in me. At this point, Monkey yowled and bolted up the stairs. The Strange Man pointed his shaking knife at me and said, “Don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m not laughing,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “You were thinking about it.”

“Was not,” I said.

“Do you see this knife?!” he shouted. “Do you see this knife?!”

Deena coolly said, “Please calm down. There’s no reason to shout.”

He said, “Don’t tell me what to do! I’m a dangerous man! Now where the hell is your money?”

Deena said, “All the money I have in the house is in the kitchen, the drawer next to the refrigerator. Go. Take what you need. I won’t try to stop you.”

He kind of snorted at this and said, “Listen, I take whatever I want! There’s nothing you can do to stop me even if you wanted!” Then, as if it was an afterthought, he said, “Bitch.”

We stood stock still then, listening to him tramp into the kitchen and flip the light switch on and shout out “Don’t move! I’m serious! I am dangerous!” before he jerked the drawer open so violently that he pulled it all the way out and it crashed onto the floor sending God knows what all clattering and spinning—that drawer was Deena’s junk drawer. The money was in the drawer, of course, but the Strange Man apparently didn’t believe that was all there was—we heard him pulling other drawers all the way out, flinging their contents about, and loudly muttering something that sounded like “muh, muh, chuh, nah, muh” over and over.

At one point, he opened the refrigerator and there was a long silence, as if he were perusing the contents, trying to decide what he wanted for a snack. Then he opened the freezer door and every cabinet door in the kitchen and threw everything out on the floor. For a long time, he just kicked things around on the floor and cursed. I say “for a long time,” but I really cannot tell how long any of this lasted or what bits of it lasted longer than others. At times, time seemed to stretch out into a vastness without boundaries, and at other times, it seemed to contract to a sharp little point that could not include anything but itself.

There were no sharp knives in the house I grew up in—Matu seemed to think that sharp knives were threatening in and of themselves. But Deena—God knows how—had become a spectacularly good cook and had a regular thing about keeping knives sharp and ready to use. The thought that Deena’s knives might catch the Strange Man’s eye in the kitchen made me giddy because if he saw the knives it might occur to him to exchange his little paring knife, or whatever it was, for a more threatening kind of knife with more potential to do harm. Sure enough, after an eternity of curses, the Strange Man tramped back in, awkwardly stuffing bills into his pants pocket, and carrying the boning knife I had watched Deena use rather intimately on a chicken just the week before when some of her university friends were coming to visit.

“This cain’t be all the money you got,” he said, squinting his eyes at Deena.

In the tone of someone relieved to be confessing, Deena lied. She said, “OK. It’s not all. There’s more money upstairs in the big bedroom. It’s in a coat pocket in the zip-up case at the back of the closet.”

“Don’t follow me!” he shouted. “Don’t try to call the police or you’ll regret it! Don’t move!” He clambered up the stairs to Deena’s room where he paused and shouted down at us: “I’m serious! I’m dangerous!” And then we could hear him slamming things around and muttering again.

. . .

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