“Self Portrait With Physalis,” mixed media on paper, by Egon Schiele, 1912.

by Lee Martin

Over the next few weeks, a series of strange and unsettling incidents occurred. On more than one night, Glory was jarred from sleep by angry shouts coming from across the street. A last balm of Indian summer had settled over the cul-de-sac, and Glory and Artie slept with their windows open. Glory woke in the middle of the night to Jim shouting, “Fuck this shit. Goddamn the motherfucker.” At least that’s what she thought she heard, but the words were so strangled, so guttural, she couldn’t be sure. She got out of bed and went to the window, where she fingered back the curtain and looked out onto the front porch of the house across the street. Jim was pacing back and forth and throwing his arms about as if he were trying to punch someone. “Fuck it, cocksucker,” he said.

He windmilled his arms, throwing haymakers. Then he stopped. His shoulders sagged and he stumbled forward, bracing himself with a hand against one of the porch pillars. He said, in a much softer voice, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. You can count on me, sir.”

Glory was not a delicate woman. How could she be, when she had to recite horror stories of rape and mayhem, all in a direct, restrained manner in order to convince women to plunk down their cash for instruments of self-defense?  She was surprised, then, to find herself, as she watched Jim go back to his wild gyrations, beginning to cry a little, feeling this immense sadness swell up in her. She had no way of understanding the connection between Jim’s disturbing behavior and the emptiness and dread that now came over her. Here she was, far on the other side of girlhood, sailing through her middle years, comfortable and well-tended, but now, standing at the window watching Jim, she felt a despair she hadn’t even known was hers.

She wanted to tell Artie about it, but she knew she didn’t dare. She recalled the night of their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. He gave her a three-stone drop diamond pendant in eighteen-karat white gold, and for just an instant she felt that old quickening of her heart, and she said to him, “If only it could always be like this.” But Artie was a man who left emotions to his customers. He said to Glory, “Geez, just wear the necklace.”

Three nights running, Glory woke to Jim’s rants, but she never went back to the window. She stayed in bed and wrapped her feather pillow around her head to muffle the noise and prayed that soon he’d stop. When he finally did, the silence was just as bad—a sudden, long silence that made her terribly aware of her own breathing and her discontent.

The only time she said anything about what she’d heard and seen was one Wednesday evening when Tippy was doing her hair.

“He must be awfully troubled,” Glory said, “to carry on like that. I could feel it in my chest, how troubled he was. Poor man.”

Tippy was giving Glory a cut, and she stopped, her scissors’ blades open. Glory felt the chill of the steel on her right temple for just an instant. “Poor man?” Tippy said. “I don’t know, Glory. Let me tell you what happened last night.”

Her sister, Dinah, had stopped by after supper to show Tippy some photos of cakes she was considering for her wedding. It turned into a gab fest, and it was nearly eleven when Dinah got around to leaving. She’d just backed out of Tippy’s driveway and was about to drop her Land Rover into low and head out when she heard a noise at her window.

“It was Jim,” Tippy said to Glory.

“Jim?” said Glory. “Well, what in the world?”

He was pounding on the glass and shouting—at least Dinah thought he was trying to form words, but all that came out were grunts and yowls. Unlike Tippy, she was a formidable woman of height and girth who skated for the Ohio Roller Girls, and she was nonplussed by Jim’s display. She rolled down her window and told him to fuck off before driving away.

“I would have been scared to death,” Tippy said, “but not Dinah. Nothing ever bothers her.”

“My goodness,” said Glory, which was something she remembered her mother saying when she was so stunned she didn’t know what else to say. Glory, at least to her best memory, had never used that phrase, and the fact that she had told her how unsettled she was.

“Do you think he’s dangerous?” Tippy asked her.

“Oh, Tippy,” said Glory. “Of course he’s dangerous. Civilized people don’t do the things he’s doing. I’d give anything to know his story. Doesn’t it all just give you the shivers?”

“Someone’s going to get hurt,” Artie said when he came through the door on Wednesday night, the night that Glory came home rattled by Tippy’s story about Jim and Dinah. “I swear, Glory.” Artie tossed the keys to his Miata into the rimmed bowl on the console table in their entryway. She’d thrown and fired that bowl in her pottery class at a studio in the Short North, and it grated on her last nerve when Artie, no matter how many times she asked him not to, tossed his keys into it with no appreciation of how much the bowl meant to her, the one pretty thing she’d managed to make with her own hands. “That guy is nuts,” he said. “Certifiable. Just wait till you hear.”

It was well past dark when Artie turned the Miata onto the cul-de-sac. Glory remembered hearing the whine of the engine as he made the turn and then sped up, in a hurry as he always was. You’re going to kill somebody someday, she was always telling him. I mean it, Artie. Slow down.

Did he listen? No, he never did. He reached his hand out to point to the cul-de-sac, and she saw his fingers trembling. She realized, then, that he was sweating. All the color had drained from his usually florid face.

“He was just laying there in the middle of the street. Jesus, Glory, I must’ve been six inches from his feet when I finally got stopped. Christ-a-loo, I can’t get it out of my mind. He was laying there like he was in his own bed.”

“My goodness.” Glory slipped her arm around Artie’s waist and told him to come and sit down. “Sit down, Artie,” she said. “You’ve had a shock.”

“Damn right, it was a shock,” he said. “I should call the cops.”

But he didn’t. He drank the glass of water that Glory brought him, and soon the color was back in his cheeks, and he was able to eat the dinner she’d warmed for him. He told her how he honked his horn, and Jim, hearing it, sat up and slowly got to his feet and moved to the side of the street so Artie could pass.

“I put the Miata in the garage,” he said, “and when I got out and looked over, he was nowhere to be seen.”

Not until later that night. When Glory took out the trash, there he was, Jim, exactly as Artie had said, just lying flat on his back in the middle of the street. It was a cool night, the approach of winter proper more than a hint. Not the sort of night for someone to be lying on the pavement, even if there was a sane reason to do so.

Glory tipped back her head and looked at the sky, wanting to see what Jim was seeing. Stars, bright and distinct here in this neighborhood on the western edge just before housing developments gave way to cornfields and flat land, here where there were no streetlights, no light pollution of any kind except the occasional porch light or the lights on either side of garage doors.

“Jim?” Glory said. “Jim, what are you doing?”

He took his time before he answered. “I like to look at the stars,” he said.

She was standing right by him, but his voice sounded far away. He spoke the way someone would inside a church or a hospital—in a whisper, nearly breathless, one born from wonder and awe. It caught Glory by surprise. Such a different sound from the strangled ranting she’d heard late in the night. Now he was calm and content.

“Will you watch with me?” he said. “Just for a while?”

She wanted to, but goodness, what would that look like: Glory stretching out beside the neighborhood crazy to gaze at the stars? Still, it was exactly what she wanted to do—to have that moment of stillness rather than going back into her house where Artie had the TV too loud because he refused to admit that he was losing some of his hearing. Any second now, he might step outside and shout for her. Glory, he might say. Glory, what in the hell?

What would she tell him? That she could understand what might make Jim want to lie down and look at the stars? Just to get away from the noise, whether it came from someone else or maybe from the voices in your own head.

“They are something, aren’t they?” she said to Jim. “The stars.”

“We’re not alone, you know,” he said. “There are other universes. We shouldn’t be so arrogant to believe there aren’t. Other universes, other dimensions.”

Such talk brought Glory back to her own life. “Jim, I think you should get up. It’s not safe for you to be out here like this.”

“If I keep really, really still, sometimes I can hear them trying to tell me things.”

“Who, Jim?”

“Other life forms.”

“And what are they trying to tell you?”

“That they’re there. That’s all. That’s everything. Just to let someone know they’re there.”

Glory heard the storm door of her house open, and she knew Artie would soon be calling to her. Still, she lingered. “Jim, please get up. What you’re doing is dangerous.”

“Just a while longer,” he said.

She stamped her foot. “Jim,” she said in a stern voice. “Do you want me to call the police?”

That was enough to get him moving. First, he sat up. Then he came to his knees. Finally, he pushed himself up to his feet.

“I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt,” she said.

He looked at her for what seemed like a very long time. Then he took a step toward her, and she stepped back.

“I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt either,” he said.

That’s when Artie called out, “Glory, what in the hell?”

As she turned to him, she was already imagining what she’d say, even though she knew it would shame her, would feel like a betrayal of what Jim had chosen to share with her.

“You’re right, Artie. Geez. Certifiable.”

“Across the Street” is an excerpt from the author’s short story collection The Mutual UFO Network, published by Dzanc Books.

omega man

In The Mutual UFO Network, Pulitzer Prize finalist and master of the craft Lee Martin presents his first short story collection since his acclaimed debut The Least You Need to Know. With Martin’s signature insight, each story peers into the nooks and crannies of seemingly normal homes, communities, and families. The footprints of a midnight prowler peel back the veneer of a marriage soured by a long-ago affair. A con man selling faked UFO footage loses his wife to the promise of life outside the ordinary. And a troubled man, tormented by his own mind, lies in the street to look at the stars, and in doing so unravels the carefully constructed boundaries between his quiet neighbors. From friendship and family to all forms of love, The Mutual UFO Network explores the intricacies of relationships and the possibility for redemption in even the most complex misfits and loners.

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever and other works of fiction and nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.