“The Frotteur in the Dark” by Terry White


Herbert Pannecouke, recovering frotteur, missed the feeling of rubbing up against rumps in elevators. Before Loretta plucked him from Satan’s grasp, as she put it that damp winter morning long ago, he used to get up before dawn to plan his detailed excursions downtown commencing with the morning rush-hour traffic and the herd of office secretaries crossing the street to the municipal building. The thought of those days always mingled with the memory of his young wife, an earnest Jehovah’s Witness holding her little stack of Watchtowers, squeezing his hand after his sordid confession and then the two of them on their knees, in front of his couch. He remembered the warmth of her hand and how that made the blood flow south most inappropriately. Now almost three decades later, he sat rock still, his breath tight, and willed his fluttering fingers to cease.

Herb gripped the arms of the wicker chair as the deer, a young buck with horns, peered around the rusted fence separating his neighbor’s backyard from his. Herb urged the animal to show itself, and as if summoned by the energy of his thoughts, the animal extended one leg, then the other, and moved stiff-legged into the open. The soft dawn light rippled over its back as it approached the bird feeder. The heady smell of iodine from last night’s rain lingered. Herb felt himself long since freed from lust and able to think about Loretta without that bone-breaking ache in the center of his chest. He missed those warm puffs of breath she blew on his neck as they lay in bed. He always woke first, that old habit reminding him of her absence.

He admired the deer’s spiky rack of antler and remembered how velvety it was just a few short weeks ago. Last night’s storm over the lake had whipped the tops of the coal piles into gritty plumes. He saw the diamond sparkle of residue across his and his neighbors’ yards. Herb testified at the last EPC hearing about it. He told them the coal storage piles were blackening their street like Dickens’ London. He savored the literary morsel again. Torn remnants of webs fluttered against the panes like loose guy wires. Sunlight caught the tiny flakes of coal dust trapped in the webbing. Herb thought of those deep-sea creatures in the ocean current dangling luminescent tentacles to trap prey.

Something spooked the deer; it ceased chewing and froze. With an elegant turn, a dancer’s tombé, the animal was suddenly gone. Herb got out of the chair, stretched, and moaned. He would have to cut the grass or listen to some snide comments in the evening around the fire. The rain had come down in buckets all week long preventing anyone mowing, a monsoon of gray sheets blowing off the lake. The humidity was already high. His flowerbeds of scarlet impatiens would be gorgeous red waves this time next month. Orange and yellow lantanas would spill over their brick enclosures. The sprig of larkspur purchased from Lowe’s yesterday was almost at full height and the South African lavender was heavy enough to bow the shepherd’s hook on the other side of the garage.

The last mouthful of coffee was cold and he made a face. To the garage, then, he told himself. No sense in waiting until the sun got higher. The fuzzy ochre and salmon streaks of daybreak were long gone. The lake was a silver sheen far out to the horizon where a jagged ridge of cloud was massing to the north. Herb imagined it upside down like a camera lens; it made him think of islands seen from a far-off ship like the humps of pine-dotted mountains in Chinese landscapes.

He unfolded the arms of his lawn mower, tightened the knobs, and tilted it against a cement block to get at the muck behind the thick blade. With a putty knife, he scraped the soggy grass free, inhaling the swampy odor. He poured fresh gasoline into the tank and checked the oil level, air filter, and spark-plug connection. Routine was his nature.

He normally began mowing the side yard, worked to the back near the garage, and then did the front and back of the house. He always saved the hardest for last because of the backyard’s steep slope. The ground out there petered away to a slick clay, and he had to step carefully. He decided to remove the grass catcher and laid it near the garage door.

Nearing the rise where his property line afforded the best view of sunsets, he looked over the bank into the clearing he and a neighbor cut for the deer.

Herb pushed the mower into a thick mass of Japanese knotweed, bumping the mower up and down to gain leverage over the rubbery stalks. He felt looseness in the upper extension of the handle bar and reached down to tighten the plastic handle knob.

Something greasy squirmed underfoot and Herb gave a startled jump, thinking—absurdly—he might have stepped on a snake. He flashed back to the many stares of anger, shock, or surprise of the girls he had sidled up to with a newspaper prop in hand. Herb always knew exactly the right amount of pressure, a single paper’s weight (he used to think), to gain the most satisfaction without incurring that look. He always had a calm apologetic manner to deflect the worst suspicions and most of the time he got away with it.

The mower stopped once his hand released the control bar, and he realized he’d have to lug it up the slope to restart it on flat ground. Thinking he might save himself trouble, he used a nylon twist tie from his pocket to secure control bar; once the engine caught, he’d just have to throw the drive control lever. He leaned over the engine and pulled the starter handle. It almost caught but he needed more leverage for the pull. He tried it again. The engine double-coughed and died. A drop of sweat ran down his nose and itched. It was warm already and he had barely started. He tried it again—another chuffing sound—but the engine wouldn’t catch. The awkward angle on the slope where gravity fought him made it hard to reach over to push the primer button.

Herb planted his feet a little lower on the hillside, and gave it one mighty pull and heard the engine catch and hold. Flushed and a bit breathless, he shifted his weight around to push the drive control lever forward to move the wheels. That was when the ground gave way beneath his feet. It felt so odd like the world tilting on a different axis. For a split-second that weightless feeling of being free from gravity astounded him. Then, with a whoomph of air leaving his lungs, he was on his back, one hand gripping the control bar and the other flailing helpless.

When his vision refocused, Herb saw the mower was canted away from his limbs, the blade loudly but harmlessly chopping the air. Herb tightened his grip to keep the machine from sliding in his direction.

Herb took his bearings. He couldn’t move much in this position. His right foot and ankle had somehow become ensnared in the wild grapevines. Herb’s back hurt. When he tried to move to his right side, a spasm of pain shot through him from his sixth lumbar to an area below his spine. It was like being jabbed every few seconds between the knucklebones of his spinal cord with an ice-cold stiletto. Pinpricks of light scattered around the edges of his vision like fireflies and a rising mist of sweat fogged his glasses except for a thin crescent near the frames. He dared not release the throbbing handle to wipe them clear. Ripples of pain were shooting up his forearms.

Herb tried to gather his strength for one momentous effort to right himself. He uncoiled the tension in his back by easing his head farther down the slope. That proved a mistake: he slid a few inches downward and almost lost his grip on the bucking machine. He felt embarrassment along with the pain, lying splayed on his back in his own yard under a hot sun. Those few inches had been sufficient to tight the vine’s chokehold on his foot. It bit like a ligature on a murder victim.

How long does it take a mower to run out of gas? Herb guessed an hour. Surely not longer?

His body began to sweat with the strain. Soon he was soaked through his clothes. He raised his head enough to see his hands and the deathgrip on the handlebar, his knuckles whitened to diamond points like a boxer’s fists. His normal tinnitus became a symphony of dissonance. Think, he told himself. Years spent getting next to unwitting women had taught him how to work angles and focus.

His breathing in this spraddled position was beginning to aggravate his shortwindedness. Herb could not predict with certainty that, given the combined forces of gravity and torque created by the whirring blade, the mower would miss him if he let go and the machine flipped. On the other hand, like a falling helicopter gone amok, that machete would slice through meat right down to bone. A grotesque image of his intestines churned up before his eyes made him tighten his grip despite the numbness in his hands. As a lonely boy, he had read cowboy novels of Apaches staking out settlers, cutting holes in their abdomens and pulling the slick blue intestine out and draping it across the belly to bring the coyotes; his young mind saw them jerking blue intestines out while the victim’s eyes bugged in horror.

He forced pleasant thoughts into his head—women and girls he had nudged on buses and in airport lines, shopping malls and grocery lines. A dizzying kaleidoscope of skirts and rumps, bare legs or be-nyloned, mingled with perfume and wafted through his brain. But danger always linked hands with the anticipation like one of those Middle Eastern martyrs strolling through a market in his bomb jacket with one thumb on the detonator, a microsecond from being blown to smithereens. Herb wondered, Did they really sense two angels hovering, eager to discharge their duty to escort him to Allah and the seventy-seven houris deployed for his pleasure?

Time—how much time? Herb guessed an hour. The cramping in his forearms had spread to the tops of his shoulders and was working down his sides toward his ribs. The knife ache in his back had spread to all quadrants evenly and he was pinned to a red wall of pain. Insects by now had discovered him and were crawling inside his clothes. He felt sticky bites on his thighs and around his groin where his exposed pant legs gave free access. He couldn’t remember whether black widows and brown recluses lived in the wild or were like rats and needed people to survive.

The engine sputtered, whined in a lower key and then died. Herb gasped out a sob of joy, exhaustion, and relief. He felt like a prisoner in one of those old Foreign Legion films, languishing in his oubliette when a rope is miraculously dropped from above. His hands, which had been soldered to the handle, released and the mower dropped helplessly and rolled past him. Where it brushed against him on its way down, it scalded his ribs—one more out-of-tune woodwind in the ragged symphony of pain being conducted inside him. The mower stopped tumbling into the brush some distance behind him. Freed from the awful nightmare of his imagined evisceration, his body filled in the vacuum by redoubling the cacophony from other hardwired outposts so that every cramp and sprain called for his attention; every itch and insect bite announced itself at once. The strangled circulation in his right foot had numbed his entire leg by now.

Nothing he commanded his body to do worked. It was all physics now. He did not have the strength of muscle or flexibility to get up. Pannecouke, seldom inclined to bad language thanks to Loretta’s ministrations to his soul’s welfare, had expunged all naughty words from his system. Somewhere in the abyss of his deepest mind, he found a seedbed of profanity so vile that it surprised him even as it came welling up from his parched throat.

By twisting his head slightly to the left, he was able to rub the arm of his glasses against a pointed twig. By cocking his head a little, he could see a few anemic petals of a Rose-of-Sharon bush through the green mist of the jungle that surrounded him and wondered how it had managed to poke through this thick canopy of tangled scrub. For long minutes he tried to catch the edge of the rolled tip of his glasses on the twig, but it was too light and gave with the merest pressure. Herb thought if he could catch it just right, he could get these useless glasses off his face and see better, myopia and all. He worked at it, very careful not to upset the tug of gravity, and stopped for long minutes when the strap muscles of his neck burned and throbbed from the exertion. This activity, pointless in the extreme, took his mind off his itching and the bug life seething around him. An oriole landed on a tree branch above him and warbled a riff of lovely song. The notes seemed to pierce Herb lying directly below. He had a perfect view of its burnt orange chest and throat contracting like an old man’s double chin.

Time expanded and collapses like a balloon being squeezed, although the light had not changed except for a softening fuzz in the tree limbs overhead. Herb wasn’t sure time was following its normal routine from—when?—an hour ago? Five minutes?

Someone has to see me, he thought. Not long now. There would be dozens of neighbors trickling next door if it was anything like last year. Herb winced—a fresh bite, sharper, between his shoulder blades. Where his pant legs exposed skin, black flies were lighting and devouring him. He felt each chunk of flesh torn off in their mandibles. At first a few, now many, enough to hear the tinny drone above the cicadas. His hands could not make a fist but he could thrash about like a baby in a crib to dislodge the feasters, and if they settled on his face, he could swing an arm up. When a couple tried to light on his eyelids, a tiny surge of adrenalin gave him renewed strength. One of his pulp mystery novels detailed with sickening precision a family of possums that had burrowed through the decomposing victim from behind and cored the body like an apple.

Finally, Herb could no longer deny his kidneys and he wet himself. The stinging hot burn of his urine was the worst indignity so far. Tears of shame and rage welled up and flowed down his face adding to the salt sting. Every nerve fiber in his brain was carrying the same message over and over: this hurts, this hurts, God damn, thishurtsthishurts . . .

More time elapsed and he heard sounds—people talking. The faintest drifts of chatter carried on the wind just reached his ears. The wiener roast: I am saved, he thought. Could he have summoned moisture from his dehydrated, exhausted tear ducts, he would have shed new tears. Herb strained to listen with every fiber of his being. He could not make out words but these happy sounds thrilled him to the marrow. Food, beer, wine, hot dogs grilling, and prepared covered dishes just like last summer. Herb liked some of his neighbors and for the few hours he could manage to be sociable, he even enjoyed a little gossip and talk of local politics. He was one of Flaubert’s rebel: a good bourgeoisie in his private life and a revolutionary in his art, although being a frotteur might not qualify as art in everyone’s book. Loretta was the one who overcame her Appalachian roots to mingle first and kept him from withdrawing too far into what she used to call his “bear cave.”

Herb lay back and let the ebb and flow of his back spasms tick off the seconds and minutes until rescue. Once he drifted off and recalled one gorgeous woman he had stalked for that one shining moment of bliss. His compulsion in those days was unforgiving; it ordered his days and nights. By then he had long since put aside the rubric of “pervert” to be as good at it as circumstances allowed. For him, those rare moments of touch were the fevered bliss of a communicant receiving the wafer at high mass.

He woke to the last yellow rays of the setting sun piercing his eyes. His face hurt and the insides of his arms were sticky as taffy and burned as if fire ants were crawling and biting. He shook the sweat out of his swollen eyes. He must have slept longer than he realized. He strained to hear the sounds of the party. Thank God, it was still going on. The volume had ascended several decibels and was stereophonic: young people, maybe some of the children or visiting out-of-state relatives, were gabbling in bright notes, maybe flirting. Herb’s heart skipped; he was dehydrated beyond anything he had ever experienced. His mouth opened and closed but he couldn’t make any sounds louder than a baby’s gurgle.

Herb imagined himself speckled in red swatches from the sunlight poking through the leaves above. His skin was hot to the touch, and the dried-up perspiration left him with unbearable itching in places he couldn’t reach.

Overhead contrails of passing jets drifted in the frigid air miles above his head. Now and then a squawking gull flew past. Red-winged blackbirds from the wetlands near the breakwall set up a noisy din beneath his feeder just twenty feet from where he lay. So many times he had watched them billing and jostling, wasting their energy, when they could have been feeding on the seed he provided. It seemed cruel they were indifferent to his plight as if the suffering of their benefactor meant nothing and that seed would always be plentiful.

Ideas seemed foreign now but images intensified. He was observing them from deep inside his own theatre. Some left him feeling befuddled, confused by their meaning, like in his dreams just before dawn. An unbidden image of Loretta dying bubbled to the surface from the time when she was wasting away in the upstairs bedroom. He wept all over again. So many times had he begged God to let the cancer take him and he would have willingly bargained with the forces of darkness when God refused to negotiate. I could spit in your face.

I am dying, a voice from somewhere said. “No,” Herb said. Not me. Not yet. Not like this.

He would gather all his strength and make one last great effort to extricate himself. All pain be damned. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the first stars of nightfall. Somewhere invisible, high above where he lay pinned in the dirt, the outer stars of the constellation Capricornus bloomed in the night sky. Mocked by a goat now, he thought sadly.

A sound behind him ended his self-pity; a snuffling sound accompanied by grunts. His heart resumed its strange arrhythmia. He strained to hear more. Some olfactory switch was tripped because he seemed able to smell everything at once—himself most of all, the pungent dirt, the spicy or musty green odors of different plants.

Then the whiskers of some small animal brushed his face and he almost levitated in panic. Herb bucked again and the animal—whatever it was—went crashing through the brush. His body shook with the first waves of nausea. He might choke to death on his own vomit . . . Herb gasped and wrenched his head painfully around so that the bile welling up from his stomach would not double back down his esophagus and strangle him. A spume of vomit gagged him with a burning, horrendous pain that was like drowning in fire. Herb thought the top of his head was going to explode from the pressure; when he lay back in total exhaustion he felt a long ropy string of drool extend from his mouth to his shoulder.

His head pounded with a furious pain. He was aware of silence, a black vacuum, until the smell of frying meat almost made him vomit again. He knew he could not survive that twice. Dusk lasted seconds and then a tropical blackness fell like a descending curtain. Herb could no longer see the roof of his house. Most of the skin around his eyelids was swollen. He felt bumps and swellings all over his body. The urine that had dried on his legs was a corrosive acid eating his flesh. Nothing above was visible, nothing his peripheral vision could detect.

Herb began to sing before he was aware of it. Yes, Jesus loves me. Croaking sounds but in his head the notes were fine, no sharps or flats, no quavering like Mrs. Tobias, the oldest member of Loretta’s Jehovah’s Witness church.

Herb smelled them before he was aware of them. It was hard to tell how many because they shuffled and bumped one another in the dark, rubbed up against him, no longer fearful. Once in a while a whiskered snout butted him in the head or chin or he felt sharp claws on his calf where a couple of them had scrambled over his body. They were loud—a dysfunctional family. He had a vision of red eyes staring at him like the devil himself. They continued to jostle and then magically disappear, sucked back into the dark. Herb knew they were feasting beneath the bird feeder. Their noisy mastication sent icy ripples down his back. It hurt terribly to twist his head, but he twisted until he could barely discern their humpy backs milling about in the feeding frenzy; he imagined their greedy little human-like hands scooping seed into their mouths. They came at night, summer or winter, these nocturnal raccoons who lived over the bank in their burrows beneath the grapevines and the black alder trees he always meant to cut back.

Their screeches, so close, were hellish. One would nip or attack another—so loud were they that Herb was amazed the partygoers next door didn’t come running over to witness the pandemonium. If I hold my breath long enough, can I die? Herb wondered whether a drowning man in the Caribbean would feel the first shark’s bite or whether he would be past all pain, the amygdala or whatever it was in the brain, shutting down all sensation in the body’s last merciful gift. Herb floated in his wet blackness and thought about it for a long time.

He remembered he had some deal—or was it some bargain—he had yet to fulfill? That worried him. He felt baby breath on his cheek and he whispered, “Loretta, wake up, sweetheart. It’s a beautiful morning.” What luck, he told himself. Just the day before he had awakened in the cold light of a winter morning, dressed in the dark, and gone foraging for beauty, his everyday routine. He raised his right arm, a supremely confident conductor in front of his orchestra. He would summon this one, tickle it from its dark corner. The red eyes of raccoons studied him while he remembered seeing Loretta standing on his porch at the precise moment he had opened the door, standing there in her radiant simple beauty just so, a perfect confluence of time and destiny. At that angle and with the full might of the stars overhead, the eyes of the feasters all turned to him at once and glowed with an incandesce like molten fire, and Herb felt his soul sink backwards.

Terry White teaches composition at a branch campus of Kent State University in Northeastern Ohio. He has been writing fiction for the last five years, mostly to avoid teaching burnout, and has a long suspense thriller manuscript under consideration—but not by a prospective publisher. He is fortunate to have a smart, tough-minded agent in New York who is guiding him in the ways of finding a niche between marketability and creativity. At his last physical, his doctor asked him if anything was wrong, and he said: “No, I’m content with my life.” That is still true.

To read Terry White’s comments on Benjamin Robinson’s “The Death of Orion,” click here.

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
We are swept into a situation where we don’t know if we should laugh or cry for the protagonist in “The Frotteur in the Dark,” and we change our mind often, vacillating between a sympathetic urge and a well-founded need to laugh. When our protagonist takes a dive for the ground and finds himself tangled and stuck in his backyard, helpless and somewhat concealed from neighbors, with a running lawnmower that with one wrong move could carve out a piece of him, our “recovering frotteur” becomes the victim, constantly nudged and accosted by wildlife. We are satisfied when he berates himself for those times he sought out unsuspecting women to rub against—becoming aware, perhaps for the first time, of his indignant past—but we question his sincerity, wondering how remorseful he really is and if he reminisces about his late wife to make himself feel better because he really did love her or because he feared ending up with her now. The author brings alive the human condition in a most ordinary way, and keeps us there, in the backyard, on the ground with our protagonist, fighting his fight, sharing those moments of grief, and in our own human way, enjoying the comic relief it offers.

Comments on this story by Tomiika Baker, author of “The Softer it Falls, The Longer it Dwells Upon”

This story, with its rich imagery, is so much more than a morality tale. It’s more than an elaborate revenge fantasy where the reader is gratified to see the offender, whose compulsion now tempered by time and religion, is himself violated by a confluence of elements; elements that are relatively benign individually but lethal in concert. There are those times, however, where we scoff, knowing that even as he’s writhing in pain and pissing himself, he’s still able to dignify his perversion by elevating it in his mind to an art form; himself to Flaubert’s rebel. With such a flawed and grotesque character I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor. A bit of Christian Realism comes through as the protagonist’s once edenic backyard is his eventual undoing; his soul sinking back to its terrestrial prison. Even his name, Herb, suggests that instead of a celestial ascent, he is meant to stay on this earth.

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