Glen Pourciau

On my daily walk in a nearby nature preserve I often see the mutterer hoofing it on the paved trail, his mouth moving intermittently as he looks around him, sweat soaking his T-shirt, his head and face partially obscured by a ball cap and sunglasses. Many families visit the preserve and when kids approach him zigzagging or shrieking, he winces and takes a wide path around them, muttering to himself, but not so the parents take notice. Who is this man and what is he muttering? Is he insulting the children, calling them little shriekers, threatening to knock them down if they get too close to him?

I sometimes follow the mutterer at a distance, disturbed by his air of menace. At times he leaves the paved trail and veers off to one of the less-traveled dirt trails that wind narrowly through trees and undergrowth. I wonder if his muttering becomes louder when he finds himself with no one around him. If I could hear him I might better assess any danger he could pose to the community, but I have kept to the paved trail, figuring he’d hear me behind him on the dirt paths, making it unlikely he’d reveal the true nature of his impulses. But what risk does our limited knowledge of him put us in? This is a family community and he does not fit in here.

I’m frustrated watching him and learning nothing, and I’ve been laying out possibilities in my mind. It’s early afternoon on a Saturday, the time of day when the mutterer likes to take his walk, but the trail is crowded with kids weaving on tricycles and small bikes with training wheels, their parents not particularly concerned if their kids impede his progress. He seems especially agitated today, and I see him shaking his head as he maneuvers through families spread out across the trail. I see his lips moving when he turns his head, but I cannot hear his voice until I’m only a few feet away. I increase my pace until I’m alongside him.

Did you say something? I ask.

He looks at me as if his territory has been invaded.

I thought you sounded angry. Am I bothering you?

The mutterer appears troubled by my appearance, but he does not respond. I can only guess what he’s saying to himself. He could be shouting to himself about what he thinks of me or imagining ways he could attack me. He sees that I don’t intend to leave him alone.

Do I know you? he asks, his voice slightly stronger than a mutter.

Do I look familiar? I answer.

Defensiveness permeates his body. He won’t give me anything, and now he knows me, the advantage of anonymity has been lost. But should he feel free to mutter words of aggression as he roams among our children, his thoughts threatening to come to life in actions? The safety of our neighborhood has to be respected, and as far as I can tell I’m the only one who’s suspicious of him. Do people think he’s simply having a pleasant chat with himself in the park? How can his menacing nature be ignored? Should we wait for something to happen and later regret that we did?

I slow down, drop back.

I’m watching you, I say to him.

He snaps his head around, muttering a curse or a threat, and after a couple of minutes he again looks over his shoulder at me.

He soon turns right and heads uphill on an elevated trail, a one-mile paved loop that ascends through a dense cedar-elm forest. He’s walking faster, and a few hundred yards up he takes a dirt trail that leads deeper into the trees. He breaks into a trot, and I stay after him, knowing I may have to defend myself. He could conceal himself around a corner and try to take me down, our bodies tangling, my hand gripping his chin as we crash on the ground.

I see him stride hurriedly now on a bumpy part of the trail, and I maintain a distance between us as a woman going the opposite way passes by. The mutterer comes to a stretch where loose rocks can shift underfoot, and down a hill a narrow stream crosses the trail, which forks on the other side. He disappears from view. I approach the hill and rocks tumble under my steps as I creep down, but when I reach the stream I don’t see him. I look back up the hill. I listen for rustling in the undergrowth but hear nothing and see no glimpse of him in the limbs and leaves ahead. I put my foot on a wet stone in the middle of the stream and jump to the other side.

I choose the left side of the fork. He could be moving further away or he could be watching me. The surrounding silence weighs on me and I imagine it filled with his anger. He could drop from a tree or knock me off my feet from behind. I pick up my pace, running and swatting away limbs, words rumbling from me, my eyes searching for his shape in the foliage. I stumble over an embedded rock and pitch forward, my shoulder colliding with a tree. I shift onto my side, groaning, dirt and burs stuck to my face, shoulder aching, hands and face bleeding. Is he watching, whispering to my vulnerability, taking pleasure in my pain? I think I hear movement and look toward it, listening, waiting. What demon does he mutter to? Have I become the embodiment of that demon?

I shout into the trees, but hear no answer. I mutter through my heaving breath.

Glen Pourciau’s first collection of stories won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His second story collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books. His work has been published in AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, New Ohio Review, Paris Review, and others.