Barlow coughs into his hand, bothered by the smoke coming from the woman across the bar. She looks hideous, otherworldly. He thinks she must be an angel. He imagines the things he would do to her if that were true. He takes the time to study her profile, her movements. She looks human, like a man. She has smooth skin and a long neck, like a woman.
“I don’t understand your hair,” he tells her.
“Holy, holy, holy,” she says, brushing ashes off her sleeve.
He leans towards her. “Nothing’s forbidden down here.”
“I don’t need that.” She continues to brush her sleeve.
To Barlow she looks pasted to the wall behind her. Her colors are chrome and rust.
“What are you made of?” he says.
“Buy me a drink and I’ll show you what I’m made of. I’ll need smokes, too.”
He stands, drains his mug; imagines her naked above him, singing, “Make way. I am an angel of the Lord.” And splitting him in two.
“Gotta go,” he says and staggers out of the bar.
He stumbles and falls a few feet into the road. A black Mazda pulls up beside him. The driver wants to know what he’s doing there. Barlow stares up at him, gets to his feet.
“Can’t a person pray, anymore?” he says.
The driver says, "What's your name? I don't recognize you from around here."
“Hey, Bub,” says Barlow.
"I know you.” says shotgun. “You’re that gym teacher."
“He looks like a gym teacher. You a gym teacher?” says the driver.
“He looks like the gym teacher raped my sister,” says shotgun.
Guy in back says, “He’s the one raped my dog. She was never right after that.”
“Is that true?” says the driver. “Did you rape this man’s dog?”
“Did your doggie have a name?” says Barlow.
“Fucking rapist,” says the driver, reaching an arm out of his car window and grabbing Barlow by the coat.
“Alleged rapist,” says Barlow, and puts his hands in his pockets, signaling his defenselessness.
“We’re going to fuck you up, anyhow,” says the driver and gives Barlow a shove. He falls backwards over the curb. Full moon tonight. No clouds. Stars like lasers. The three of them get out of the car at once. A few punches land here and there. Some rhetorical questions are posed in regard to the beating he’s taking, punctuated by thuds.
There’s a clatter of tires on blacktop as a truck comes skidding around the bend, sending the idling black Mazda careening down the street. The truck flips on its side, scattering glass everywhere.
Barlow looks up; the three are backlit, a hulking tableau. Dazzling white lights broadcast the arrival of some alien intelligence. Barlow gets to his feet, shields his eyes, and limps away. Cautiously, the three approach the driver who is now scrambling out of the shattered upside window of his truck. When they see that he isn’t hurt they curse and punch him.
Barlow’s a block from home when he’s pelted with hail, a sudden downpour. He trudges up a hill with no thought of running. Once inside he shakes the stones out of his hair and vomits into the kitchen sink.
His wife’s in bed. He lies beside her, stares up at the ceiling fan.
“What’s the matter with you?” she says. “How did you get those bruises on your face?”
“I can’t say,” he tells her.
“Try,” she says.
“They’re just . . . appearing,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m being persecuted.”
“Tormented and pummeled.”
“Punished by God, you mean?”
“It’s about time,” she says.
He gets up and shuffles out through the kitchen into the yard, barefoot in the pre-dawn of another day. Opening his hand, he finds a stone. He must have picked it up in the brawl. He carries it inside. Sits at the kitchen table and listens for what to do next. Birds arrive, one, two, three. Their voices are almost human.
“Do you know what makes it difficult for people to like you?”
This turns out to be his wife talking. She stations herself across the table from him. He can see the shadow of her vagina through her thin cotton T. He stares at it.
“When you say 'people' you mean you, right?” he says.
“This is what I’m talking about,” she says.
She gives off a soft, unearthly glow.
“I’m just trying to help you,” she says.
He feels the smooth contours of the stone in his hand; places it on the table top between them.
“What’s that?” she says.
“Pick it up.”
She sits, looks down at the stone, then back at him.
“Pick it up.”
Instead of picking up the stone she puts a napkin down and takes an orange from the fruit basket. She digs a nail into its pith, peels, and pries the pulp apart with her thumbs, revealing what, up until now, was unimaginable; a center, soft and white.
“What are we made of?” he says, reaching for her; his voice, a buzz, a fly caught in a jar.
She slips away, stands with her legs spread and her hands on the countertop behind her.
He picks up the stone, places it on his tongue, and lets it rest there.
“What are you doing?” she says.
He spits the stone into his hand, says, “I don’t know anymore.”
He wipes the stone with his shirt front, weighs it in his palm, feels less solid in comparison.
Robert Bradley is published in various online journals.