By Teri Carter
The first thing he shows me is his ID badge, his authenticity. The badge hangs around his neck on a new blue lanyard but the ID itself is hidden inside a thick plastic case with white spots where his eyes are supposed to be. He holds up the badge. “I’m showing you my badge,” he almost whispers. And when I don’t acknowledge the badge, don’t acknowledge that he is who he says he is, he holds it higher, closer to my face. “This is my badge, see.” And I say yes, yes I see it, yes I see you, sure, come on in, even though all I can really make out is the worn plastic case. The evil-seeming, white, rubbed out, ghost spots for his eyes. How many times, I wonder, do I let a strange man — a man I don’t know, a man I’m not sure about, feel odd about, a man who strikes me as not-right-to-be-here-with-me-alone – into my house?
I am reading The Burning by Jane Casey. The story of woman detective after a serial killer. I have not read a book like this in more than 20 years, and I still remember the exact moment, the exact night, I knew I could no longer read books like this. I was in my bed in my apartment under a flowered navy blue bedspread. It was after midnight. The lamp beside me cast a round shadow on the ceiling above as I read the true crime story of Jeffrey MacDonald murdering his family. I remember thinking, ‘what dad butchers his entire family?” I remember setting Fatal Vision down, forever unfinished, and turning out the light. And sometime that following week, I buried that book in the bottom of my trash and took the trash out. I could not read it, but even more I could not even have the story of this man in my house.
It is Thursday. A stormy Thursday afternoon. My house is dark. The man with the badge works for our satellite TV service, a service that has robo-called me 3 times this morning to confirm the appointment and sent 2 emails, and yet. The dark of the day, his badge, his presence, unsettles me. The TV in our basement has not worked for a month, but this is the first day I’ve had time to deal with the basement TV, the one no one ever watches, and to schedule the required service call. This is the first day I’ve cared. And here he is. The man they sent.
I grew up with my single mom, in a house without a man. My mother was not a fearful person, nor was her mother, my grandmother, and we all lived on a diet of scary movies, movies where men like Dracula waited for the dark to abuse his women. We watched TV shows about terrifying men, like the one where Darrin MacGavin searched for The Night Stalker, and when I was 10 and 11 I would come home from school in time to watch Dark Shadows with my grandmother in her cold, dark basement. Fear, fear of imaginary bad men, was our entertainment.
And yet when I was little I had regular and vivid, terrorizing nightmares. I screamed like someone was killing me. I walked out of our apartment and knocked on neighbors’ doors. I babbled incoherently to my single, sleep-deprived mother in our ever-changing string of new, and unfamiliar, apartments. The most vivid and repeating nightmare, like a record player with a skip, had me staring hard out our window into the dark, my fingers crunched hard on the sill, while kneeling on my bed and seeing a strange man with white eyes staring right back at me from the other side. To this day I am sure I can smell him.
The man in my house smells like hard liquor. His arms are covered in tattoos. His shirt, which appears to be regular issue from the TV company, is ironed perfectly, crisp, but it’s his pants that bother me. Pants hanging loose and dirty-like, the pants of a man who does not care, a man who has nothing to lose. His pants are too big. His pants have holes. I move my focus to his hair, his dark brown hair that appears to be unwashed. The whites of his very real eyes display hard red lines. He is not coiffed like Barnabas Collins of Dark Shadows, he is not controlled or composed — or is he? He keeps looking away. And that’s when I notice his teeth. That he has no teeth. I wonder where and what my father is.
The main detective in the book I’m reading is a woman. Strong. Independent. With sass. I close the book and stare at the cover. Jane Casey, The Burning. I am holding the book in one hand, my cell phone in the other, while I talk to the man in my house. It is like I am holding two bricks. Two giant bricks.
My dogs, all 3 of them, are barking. Barking barking barking. I apologize to the man. I try to shut them up, Shhh stop it stop it stop it shhhhh, it’s okay. I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, they are nice dogs, they really are, I say. And of course I immediately regret saying this. My dogs, 2 labs and a golden retriever, are locked in the laundry room behind a baby gate. The man bends over, pulls blue plastic booties over his muddy boots, and heads to the basement, and the first thing I think as I stand by the baby gate with my barking dogs is, “with those blue booties he won’t leave footprints.” Minutes later the man explains how he will run a whole new wire, how this will really “fix it.” I voice my excitement about this, about the TV no one watches, and at the same time I know I’m I stepping back from him, back and back, as he talks. I wonder if he notices. I wonder if you grow up without a man in your house, if you ever get used to having a man, any man, in your house. I cannot image this. And not knowing what else to do, I thank him.
It is Thursday, I keep thinking. Just a Thursday. Nothing bad happens on a Thursday. Thursday is innocuous. But when he goes back to work outside, I stalk the man from the windows. I float back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; hide behind curtains; shhh the dogs; keep my eyes on him all the while, every second. I might smile when I’m talking to him, smile and nod, but I am not myself. I am a feral animal in my own home.
I once had a nightmare where the man, the white-eyed man, on the other side of the window broke the glass. In my dream I fell to the bed in a pool of thick, threatening shards. I was sure I was being cut, that the man was coming for me.
All is well, the man says. He is back in my house, back in his blue plastic boots that won’t leave footprints. The man with the badge with the white eyes and no teeth. He hands me a brochure and flips through its pages, tells me how I can refer friends to his TV service, how I can make $300! if I refer other people, new customers, to their service. He points to a page with a diagram and moves closer, shows me how I can find ‘hard to find’ channels. My dogs start barking, again. I apologize, again. Why can’t I turn off the apologies? Why do I yell at my dogs to be quiet, to stop bothering this man? Dammit!! I say. And when the man seems shocked by my language, I apologize for that, too. He tells me to read through the questionnaire so that when his company calls later today, and they will call, I can tell them how great his service was. How great he was. I feel like he is sticking something down my throat as he asks, without teeth which I cannot stop focusing on, if I have any questions.
A decade ago I was traveling with a good friend. We shared a hotel room. I woke up screaming in the night, screaming like someone was murdering me, destroying me, which scared the living hell out of her. “Good god,” she said. “Don’t ever fucking do that to me again.” I think about the time when I was 14 and I hid my bedspread from myself. The times I saw the white-eyed man on the other side of the window and tried to scream and nothing came out. The bed of imagined glass shards. The time my mother found me at 2 a.m. at our neighbor’s apartment door, knocking knocking knocking. The time I yelled for my mom that there was something scary on the radio and why oh why could she not turn it off. Where was the man of our house? I wondered if maybe my mom could not “turn it off” because she was not the man.
The man is finished with his work. He explains in minute detail what he did to fix the TV in the basement, and he is saying, “Don’t wait a whole month next time!” He smiles, grins really, with no teeth. I feel his sweetness, a painful embarrassed shyness emanating from him. He looks down at his feet, at his dirty boots. The dirty boots he has been covering with the blue plastic booties that don’t leave evidence, and I am ashamed. He is proud of his work, of his ability to fix the problem in my house. “If I were you,” he says, staring out my back window, “I would never ever leave this beautiful place. You are one lucky lady.”
It is strange that I am reading thrillers again. Reading Jane Casey. Reading about murders, the slayings of women, and serial killers. Reading about women in fear for their lives. Scary fucking stories of women who quiet their dogs and welcome strange men, dangerous men, into their homes. I wonder where my father is, if he has ever been afraid. I wonder if he knows what has been like to be a woman, women, alone in the world.
The man is in my kitchen. I sniff the air and smell … nothing? Are his bloodshot eyes purely exhaustion? I wonder if this is what my father looks like now, how he has or has not aged, what he might look like. I wonder what he smelled like, my dad. I wonder if it was I who scared him.
I see, finally, how very small he is, the man in my house. Smaller than me. I could take him, I think. I could take down the baby gate and release the dogs. I could survive. The man is so shy he can hardly speak. He holds his head down. I think about my father, the man who was never here, and I feel a lightness. The man holds up his badge again. “When they call, and they will call yet today, they will ask you,” he says, “if I showed you my badge. That is the minimum I am required to do. Please say yes. Please tell them.”
The man in my house is leaving. When he pulls his TV van out of my driveway, when he is finally and surely gone, I lock all of my doors, every single one of them, and I double check them all. I think about the man’s badge and his white-badge eyes and my own distant screaming. I pick up the Jane Casey book and hold it hard to my chest. I wonder where my dad is, my man. I think about the little girl staring out in her sleep to the man on the other side of the window, the stranger behind the broken glass. I think about my absent father and what he could not, or would not, do. There has always been, I know now, a man in my house. A stranger. And I am still afraid of that man. I release my dogs. I take down the baby gate.
I am blown away. That feeling of helplessness and suspicion, for what and why, I can’t say. But it’s been captured here. Checking the locks and checking the doors and wondering about the workman or the cleaner or the exterminator guy, hating the apologies, fearing deep into the night. And for what?
Most of all, I’m struck by how this shared moment belongs mostly to us women alone.
Thank you for acknowledging this thing we silently carry.
You’re right, it does feel like this kind of fear belongs to us women alone. Thanks, Jennifer, for your thoughtful response.
I cried like a baby when I read this. I have been distrustful, dare I say, scared of men (strangers), violence of any sort, and my own friggin shadow my whole entire life. I am always searching for the unobtainable. Safety. Provided by…..? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, why are you scared all the time, not every strange man is going to hurt you, stop being paranoid, this program isn’t that violent, stop being a baby. I have often wondered if I was born to sensitive, to scared, and why I was chosen to lug this suitcase of fear around with me every darn day. Thank you for sharing this blog. You are not alone and neither am I.