Fiction
Fiction

Worm

Glen Pourciau


My wife had died six months before, and I hadn’t been around people much since then. My friends and neighbors, Roy and Tish, wanted to help me come back to life, as they put it, so they asked me to come over for a drink, and halfway through our martinis they suggested I come with them to a party they’d been invited to on Saturday night. They’d cleared it with the hosts, they said, a couple I’d met a time or two at Roy and Tish’s. The couple’s home was built by an architect friend of theirs, and it had been featured in a national magazine because of its unique design. The husband was an abstract painter who was an old friend of Roy’s and the wife was a divorce lawyer. Roy promised that the guests would be an interesting and varied bunch. I told them I didn’t think I’d have anything to say to a group of strangers, but Tish replied that several people who were likely to be there never stopped talking about themselves. If things got bad she could stick me in front of one of them. In case you’ve forgotten, Tish said, all you have to do to seem normal at a party is hold a drink, nod, and laugh even when you don’t understand a word people are saying. 

 

I said I could still do all three of those things, why not, and I raised my drink, laughed, and nodded to show them I was up for it.

 

By the time I went to bed that night, I was already regretting it. A new chapter was starting in my life, but who wanted to hear about it? I couldn’t imagine myself talking to anyone. I didn’t want the strain of making an impression on people, didn’t want the phone to ring or to hear a knock at the door, wanted only the quiet of my house around me. But the quiet wasn’t helping me, and I wasn’t quiet on the inside, anyway. I’d agreed to go, and I wasn’t going to come up with some phony explanation for why I couldn’t.

 

On Saturday night I put on some clothes I used to wear to parties and went over to Roy and Tish’s. When we arrived at the party, it was already in full swing, and we went straight to the bar for something to occupy our hands. I’d already managed to put an amused look on my face, though except for the bartender I hadn’t exchanged a word with anyone. Roy and Tish were greeted by a couple they knew, and a conversation began. I didn’t feel a part of what they were saying, and I let my eyes wander around the room, feeling adrift, at sea, familiarity between people wherever I looked. The house was impressive, far beyond what I was used to, an opulence I had no connection with. I tried to keep my feet still, but they kept twitching, stirred by a desire to walk out the door. I was thinking that if I were still a smoker, I could go out to the back porch and light up. Then I saw a man coming straight toward me, pitted red face, almost lipless, thin hair on top, dyed blond, his eyes cutting into me. He stopped a foot or two away and held out his hand. I shook it.

 

Hello again, he said and waited for me to answer.

 

Again? I asked.  

 

A smirk passed across his face.

 

Okay, he said, still staring at me.

 

Roy was engrossed in the conversation with the other couple, but Tish was listening to me and the stranger.

 

Gerald, do you know our friend? she asked.

 

Only slightly, he answered, but well enough.

 

I’ve never seen you before in my life, I told him.

 

I could be mistaken, he said. Have a pleasant evening.

 

He turned and blended into the other guests. Tish grabbed my arm.

 

You know Gerald?

 

I have no idea what he’s talking about, I said.

 

I don’t know a lot about him, Tish said, but he’s an interesting character.

 

Had I met Gerald before and forgotten him? Tish kept looking at me as if for an answer, and I didn’t have one. I took a swallow from my drink, but the vodka did nothing to alleviate my sense of disorientation. I didn’t belong at the party. I had nothing to do with it and nothing to do with Gerald. The piercing eyes, the handshake, the exchanged words, the pretense of shared knowledge, had rattled me.  Did he do this to people as a kind of practical joke?  He’d made me feel less real to myself.  

 

I saw him go outside for a smoke, and I thought of following him out and asking a few questions. He might offer me a cigarette, but I didn’t have to accept it. I didn’t want to be smoking with him, standing at his side blowing smoke and chatting. If I charged out the door, would Tish assume that seeing Gerald must have hit a nerve with me and that I was lying when I said I’d never met him? But what did I care if she did?  

 

I headed for the same door that Gerald had passed through and went out and saw him standing alone. Cool night, sliver of a moon partially hidden behind a cluster of trees.

 

Cigarette?

 

No, thank you, I said, but despite my annoyance that he’d asked I felt an urge to take one. I stared at the pack, which must have clued him.

 

You quit? he asked.

 

I didn’t answer and let a moment of silence pass. He seemed comfortable in the silence, free of any inclination to speak, and I told myself I’d be better off if I kept my questions to myself and walked away. As long as I could be inside, why was I standing outside with him?  

 

Who are you? I asked him.

 

He let out a grunt and looked to his left, though I was to his right. The grunt was his only answer.

 

Is this fun for you? I asked.

 

He mashed his cigarette out on the rail, flipped it over the edge, and went back in the house. Was it his mission to be a worm in my mind? I wondered if he was trained to defend himself. Forget about it, you’re stirred up but don’t make it worse, go inside and get another drink. That’s what I did.

 

Before I could make any effort to clear my head I saw a woman walking toward me. Did she have some connection with Gerald? What was I doing to attract these people? She introduced herself as Harriet. Smooth, translucent skin, full lips, lustrous dark hair, half my age.

 

I saw you talking with Gerald, she said. Do you know him?

 

I’ve never met him before, I answered, a trace of bother leaking through.

 

Harriet seemed to be staring inside my head, and I wanted to ask her what she was looking for. She couldn’t see him coming yet, but Gerald was on his way over to us. She didn’t seem surprised when he put his hand on her shoulder.

 

Be careful with this one, he pretended to confide to her. Pent-up scenarios, body parts moving asleep for months.

 

He went on his way.

 

How about you? I asked her. Do you know him?

 

Gerald acts like he knows everybody, but nobody really knows him. He might have seen you looking uncomfortable when you came in and decided you were someone he could mess with. He’s like a con man, but he’s not after your money.

 

I couldn’t help thinking of my wife as Harriet stood in front of me. Whenever I spoke with an attractive woman at a party, my wife would appear and stand directly between us. She’d start talking to the woman and stand so that she blocked the woman’s view of me. I loved these interruptions. They seemed protective to me, and I used to laugh with her about them. When I told her what she’d done, she claimed to be unaware that she’d stood between me and the other woman and would insist she was not jealous and had only wanted to know what we were talking about.

 

Don’t think it’s only you, Harriet went on. He likes to provoke people. He gets in lots of fights, and he always thinks he’s been wronged.

 

Are you some kind of friend of his?

 

Just someone he’s provoked.  

 

The racket of voices around the room jangled in my head. I looked over at Roy and Tish and considered asking them for their key so I could drive myself home. They could call me later to pick them up or they could get a ride back with someone else. But I didn’t want to bother them and leave them wondering what had happened to make me cut the night short.

 

I looked at my watch.

 

You ready to get out of here? Harriet asked.

 

I came with Roy and Tish. I doubt if they’re ready to go.

 

Gerald swooped by again, this time from the opposite side, and put his hand on my shoulder.  

 

How’s your wife, he asked me.

 

I didn’t like the false familiarity. I hadn’t taken my ring off for a second since my wife died, and it was right in front of my face as I sipped my drink.

 

She died, I told him.

 

Sorry to hear that.

 

Are you implying you knew her?

 

He gave me a look as if he were withholding information. He patted my shoulder and walked off.

 

Don’t let him get to you, it’s all just talk, Harriet said. I’ll give you a ride home. You’ve had enough for one night.

 

I accepted her offer with relief. I couldn’t see Tish anywhere, but I stopped by Roy on the way out and told him Harriet was giving me a lift home.

 

How do you know Gerald? he asked, glancing at Harriet.

 

I don’t, I said, not wanting to explain. See you soon.

 

Harriet and I went outside and got in her car.  

 

I feel better already, I said as we started off. I gave her directions, but before we’d gone far I noticed her looking in her rearview mirror.

 

He’s following us, she said.

 

I looked back and saw that it was Gerald behind her.

 

What kind of creep is he? You said he was all talk.

 

He is, but it’s how far he’s willing to take things. He looks for reactions, and he knows how to get them.


Just get me a few blocks from my house and I’ll walk the rest. You don’t need to be in the middle of this.


You don’t want him driving behind you at two miles an hour, and you probably don’t want him to see where you live.

 

What will happen if he does?

 

Nothing, but knowing he knows would be unsettling to you.

 

I decided not to say more and not to let her talk me out of going home. I didn’t know what her connection with Gerald was or if her intent was to help me.

 

When she stopped at a red light, I hopped out. She called out to me, but I ignored her and walked across two lanes of cars to reach the curb, the glare of headlights around me. I started down the sidewalk, and she was in no position to cut across traffic. No one was behind me at first, but then I saw headlights and a slow-moving car rolled alongside me, the passenger-side window down. Gerald called out my name, which I hadn’t told him, and I wanted to know how he knew it.  

 

Come on, he said, get in and I’ll give you a ride home. This is ridiculous. What are you afraid of? Harriet doesn’t like to admit it to others, but we’re quite close. There’s a bond between us, we were almost engaged once. You think we’re criminals? Is that what you’re saying about me? Isn’t your mind running away with you? I don’t appreciate the rejection I’m feeling here. What can happen, what are you thinking?  Am I supposed to be some animal you can kick and walk off? What in the hell gives you the right? Who are you, anyway? You think I’m not justified in teaching you a lesson? You think I’m afraid to break my hands on your head? One look at you and I knew you were nothing. You’re not waking up from this one.

 

I started across a parking lot, hoping to get near some other people, but no one was around. Gerald turned sharply into the lot, and I knew I couldn’t outrun his car.  When he got out I’d go right at him, knock him back, slam the door on him when he fell on his butt and keep slamming it until he stopped moving. But he didn’t get out.  He pulled up close to me, howling with laughter through his open window and yelling insults. He sped off, but before he drove out of the lot he saw Harriet’s car coming toward him. He stopped next to it and hung his head out, and her window was also down. I heard their voices, but I couldn’t make out the words.

 

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glen pourciau
Glen Pourciau's collection of stories,  Invite, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have been published in The Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and other magazines.
Published in Issue #7 of The Literarian.