The Red Hunter

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger

To Joe and Jen Pamlanye

Thank you for the blessing of your friendship and for the precious gift you gave me

—space and time.


There’s nothing about me that you would ever notice. I am neither especially thin, nor overweight. My face will not be one you remember. With dark eyes and pale skin, hair the color of straw, cheeks round and just rosy enough that you won’t wonder if I’m ill, I will blend into the sea of other plain faces you saw before and after as you went about your day. Nothing about my clothes will capture your notice. No brands that incite jealousy, or anything revealing, no stains, maybe just wrinkled or worn enough that you’ll dismiss me as someone without much money, though not poor enough to be in need. If I’m wearing a uniform, I don’t even exist. I am the checkout clerk at the grocery store, or the maid that cleans your hotel room, the girl who answered the phone, or the young lady at the information desk. No, you would say later, you can’t recall her name or what she looked like, not really. The truth is you don’t see me; your eyes glance over me, never coming to rest. But I see you.

Today I am trying not to emit the energy of excitement. I use my breath to control the pulse of adrenaline, just as I have been taught. I keep my head bent and my pace easy as I trail behind him. He moves slowly, haltingly, relying heavily on his cane, pauses long at the curbs, edging down cautiously. Occasionally, I have to slow my stride or stop altogether, glance at clothing I wouldn’t buy in windows that cast back my reflection, someone narrow and still amid the bustle of city dwellers shuttling through their frenetic lives.

My hands are small and soft but stronger than you would imagine. Where I train we smack our palms and knuckles against cinderblocks. This action creates tiny fissures in the bones. When those fissures heal, the bone is stronger. I can put the blade of my palm through a two-by-four. But my hands are not calloused in the way of the fighter; they are smooth and hard as beach stones. Because I am not big, I must be fast. Because I am not big, I must come in close and hard, use elbows, knees, deliver unflinching blows to kidneys and groin, the soft notch at the base of the throat, the jugular. Eyes are good, too. Eyes can be a fight ender if you get it right.

A fight, when you must fight, is a dance. You can prepare but not strategize. You are married to your opponent, his movements dictating your own; his weaknesses are your strengths, his mistakes, your opportunities. You must be present, focused, and—most of all—you must breathe. No panic. No anger. Just the breath.

His right hand grips the cane. In his left, he clutches a green reusable sack. It’s Wednesday, his day to go to the farmers’ market where he buys berries, bread, honey, kale, carrots, and a tub of hummus. The vendors know him, but he is rarely greeted with smiles. He is cantankerous, unfriendly, and something more. Maybe others can smell what I know to be true about him. They catch the scent but can’t place it. They recoil ever so slightly, want to draw their hands back quickly when they give over his purchase or change. Only the old woman at the hummus stand openly scowls at him. You only know it if you’ve seen it before. It’s death. There’s a rot inside that sweats from his pores, stares back at you from the abyss of his eyes. Whether you can name it or not, if you’re sensitive to such things, it repels you.

He crosses the street. Once he reaches the far curb, I follow quickly just as the light is about to change. He wears a frayed tweed jacket and a mud-colored fedora, khakis, and brown walking shoes. Though he is decently turned out, no one looks at him. No one sees the old, the frail, the infirm; they are invisible like me. No one looks as he turns off Broadway onto Twenty-Sixth Street. He stands in front of the metal door, loops his hand through the handles of the bag, and fishes his key from his pocket. With the key in the lock, leaning on the cane, he struggles to push open the door. This is his moment of vulnerability.

“Can I help you with that, sir?” I ask coming up behind him, pushing the door open easily from over his shoulder.

“I don’t need any help,” he says, not even glancing at me. I dance around him and step inside the small vestibule. There’s another door. I need him to give me the key.

“It’s no trouble,” I say brightly. “I’m Eve? From the third floor?”

I am not Eve. I do not live on the third floor. I take the sack from his hand.

“Give that back,” he says. A little spittle travels from his lip to my cheek. I wipe it away. “Leave me alone.”

“Give me the key,” I say. “I’ll let you in.”

He doesn’t hand it over, so I reach and take the key from him. His grip is weak and shaky, and his face is getting red from anger, from a kind of twitching powerlessness. I remember him as a powerful man, with a steely grip and cruel smile, blank eyes—which is all I ever saw of his face. And this moment in the vestibule gives me the briefest pause, a stuttering disconnect between the past and the present. He’s just an old man. Helpless. Weak. Then, I remember the vise of his stony fingers on the soft flesh of my arm. I remember my mother shrieking my name, a wobbling pitch and tenor I’d never heard before and would never, all my life after, forget. I remember him. But he does not remember me. Once, I was afraid of him. He was, in fact, my worst nightmare. Today, it’s almost too easy.

I put the key in the lock and push open the interior door. It’s here that I experience another moment of doubt, a hollow that opens through my middle. This is wrong. Part of you knows that.

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