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The Obtuse Man

Jenkins felt light after his confession to the underground man. He pushed open the wrought-iron gate at the top of the stairway, making it creak and whine, and climbed up and out of the underground into the brightness of day. A dry, biting wind whipped the morning air, but the sky was clear, flooding the usually grey, grimy, wet old town with golden light, making it shimmer and glow with its snow-covered cobblestone streets.

Jenkins slipped his lion's-headed cane under his arm and, pulling on his black leather gloves, looked across the street at the bridge, scintillating under the gilded veil thrown upon it by the rising sun, and deliberated walking home across it. However, seeing a young girl (swathed in what seemed like yards of black fabric) moving cautiously across the bridge towards him where he stood by the underground, he assumed it would be an icy, slushy mess that would wreak havoc on the polished leather of his shoes, so he turned toward the main street and began his walk home through the old town, almost skipping, light and pleased with himself.

It was still too early as Jenkins's solitary steps crunched along the sidewalk, tucked under last night's snow storm, strewn with long shadows by the various buildings fringing the way. Too early, that was, for anyone who didn't work in the restaurants and shops that lined Jenkins's path. As he walked he nodded hello to the bakers and grocers and florists each unloading trucks delivering their wares and supplies, each known to him personally.

At the corner of Leman and Bacon, Jenkins bought a newspaper from Gus's stand and stood a while, flipping through the paper and listening to Gus's small radio, tuned in to the news. The newspaper still headlined the ongoing students' strike at the university, which was becoming more violent with each passing day. On the radio the anchorwoman spoke in her exigent, clipped manner about the threat of another world war.

"Wonder who'll prevent this war," Jenkins said to Gus, nodding at the radio.

"It's Christmastime," said Gus sagely over his pipe. "Everybody's in their do-gooder mode—doing too much good and feeling too good to have anything bad to get off their chest right now. I don't reckon these tensions will end until next year, at the earliest." He turned down his radio.

"This strike, too," said Jenkins. "Feels like it'll never end."

"Yep," Gus said, narrowing his eyes. "I reckon it'll take a confession of some real big, real bad feeling to end either." He took a deep drag from his pipe and then exhaled through his mouth and nose.

Jenkins nodded at Gus, smiling perfunctorily at the hazy cloud hanging before Gus's face. He waved goodbye to Gus with his newspaper and went on his way.

Jenkins kept his eyes to the ground as he went along, thinking about what Gus had said. Something real big, real bad to confess. So what Jenkins had confessed yesterday hadn't been big or bad enough to end the strike, or to prevent the war altogether. He wondered whether what he had done last night and had purged from his consciousness with this morning's confession would be big and bad enough. But as he turned onto his street and saw his new neighbor (the young wife to whom he had, two days ago over a clandestine lunch, suggested taking out an accident policy on her husband's life without his knowledge and then pushing him off a train), shivering in her cotton robe, take her delivery of milk back into her house, he decided that, just to be sure, he would stick to his plan and go ahead with tonight's bad deed. That way, at confession tomorrow, he would have a bulkier story to part with.

Anything to end this strike, thought Jenkins. Anything to stop another war. Throwing his head back and swinging his cane imperiously with every step, he allowed his lips the luxury of a languorous smile—something he did in public only when he was especially proud of himself. Anything to fulfill my duty to my town and country, his voice declared in his mind, and before he knew what he was doing he had his left hand on his chest.

Usually, he would be deathly embarrassed by such a bold move made in public. Usually, he would immediately regret it and turn red down to his toes, but he was filled with too much patriotic feeling, too much pride in himself, and thoughts of his future glory. Thoughts of what his acquaintances at the club would say to him—How they would congratulate him when he told them that it was his confessions that had brought them peace. The thoughts danced provocatively in his mind like a perfumed lace handkerchief in a light breeze, and he found himself unconcerned with how others perceived him now.

He picked up the bottles of milk at his doorstep and unlocked the front door, stepping with a forlorn sigh into his dark home, already longing to be back in the brightness of day. His wife hadn't been down, then—all the curtains remained drawn, the blinds shut. He put the milk and newspaper on the kitchen counter and climbed up the stairs, pulling off his gloves finger by finger, to wash up for breakfast.

At his bedroom door, he halted and listened. He heard his wife blow her nose and sniff. He crept in and found her weeping on the bed. In her quivering hands, she held the note he had placed on the pillow next to her sleeping head before he left for confession. The note explained to her that he wasn't late coming home last night because he was at the club as he had told her; he was late because he had been in bed with the young woman next door.

As Jenkins leaned his cane against the wall next to the door and shrugged off his coat, the whisper of a smile, faint as gossamer, crept across his lips.

As Jenkins descended the stairs into the underground the next morning, he considered turning back. On his way, he had stopped at Gus's stand and had quickly leafed through the day's newspaper. Front-page news was still the strike, but the striking students and the university had come to an agreement late last night. On the radio the anchorwoman and some other correspondents spoke urgently of the war, each voice competing for supremacy, with discussions of peace. Perhaps my confession is no longer needed, Jenkins thought. Absentmindedly, he skimmed over a short report in the newspaper about the suicide of a young girl, whose body had been pulled, early this morning, from the icy river running under the bridge. The story meant nothing to him. He continued on his way.

Jenkins descended deeper into the underground. He turned the corner and saw Truman at the end of the corridor standing next to the big wooden door. His confession might not be needed, but what harm could it do? Besides, Jenkins mused, what good would my stories do rattling about alone and unheard in my mind? He took a deep, hearty breath, less to brace himself than to clear his airways, and walked on.

Jenkins had come to love the sound of his footsteps ricocheting sharply off the damp stones of the underground. He had become enamored by the moldering churchy scent that reigned throughout the underground’s veins, a scent that reminded him of rain after a dry spell—an intoxicating scent that always greeted him at the wrought-iron gate at the top of the stairway and carried him deep into the underground's veins.

He could already taste his confession on his lips. Last night, he had taken the money his wife had saved up for a new evening gown and had used it to buy a pearl collar for the young neighbor wife, with whom he had, moreover, spent the entire night. He'd never spent a night away from home, and this time, he had made sure, before he left, to tell his wife exactly where he would be and with whom, and exactly, in the utmost detail, what he had planned to do. He would confess it all, including how incensed his wife had become because of all he had done these past two nights.

His confession might not be necessary, Jenkins thought, but it was such a profound confession that it would certainly perform miracles for the town—perhaps not now, but for the future—and it would certainly bring great honor to him. To secure future glory, thought Jenkins as he approached Truman. After all, a man needs security.

"Hello Truman," said Jenkins, smiling at the big man looming high above him. "It's such a beautiful and bright day today, isn't it?" Jenkins allowed joy at the thought of his future glory to ooze out from him so that it might infect Truman. Always thinking of others, Jenkins was.

"Bet it'll be an even better day after your confession," Truman said, his words bulky and guttural, as though they were the first to stumble out of his mouth in a long time. Jenkins beamed.

Truman didn't. He remained stoic, unlocking the heavy wooden door with sacerdotal gravity and pushing open the old door easily, as though it were made of cardboard—unlike the how the door moaned and groaned as Jenkins opened it after his confession. Truman stepped aside and let Jenkins through. Jenkins went in but halted abruptly just beyond the threshold.

"What happened?" he called back to Truman, bewildered. "This isn't the same man who was here yesterday. I don't think my confession killed him – I only saw a scratch being made across his nose with my words."

Truman, with his hand on the doorknob, looked Jenkins over carefully.

"There was a young girl in yesterday," said Truman, his ancient face not betraying any of his thoughts. "It was her confession that killed him."

Truman closed the door on Jenkins without waiting for his response. The whining and creaking tore through Jenkins's mind, making him wince. He stood in the murky room, breathing in the wet, musky air, staring at the grime caked in the grooves of the damp wood of the door, noticing it for the first time and listening to the echoes of the door's cries die out. He heard water dripping somewhere far away and nearby.

He felt so angry he thought he might cry, but he did not. He turned and faced the emaciated man sleeping with the gag in his mouth, tied, his hands bound above his head and to a hook on the low ceiling, to a board mounted on the wall. Then Jenkins talked about what he had done last night, and about how much he made his wife cry, adding his feelings of anger right now. Anger at the young girl whose story had killed the underground man yesterday, anger at the young girl who had robbed him of his glory.

As his words rushed out of him in an impassioned flurry, they rushed toward the new underground man. The man lay undisturbed, with not so much as a papercut. Jenkins touched his own forehead, and felt slick, warm blood on his fingers. Above his left eyebrow was a small cut, as if a dull knife had been dragged along by a weak arm struggling under the knife's weight. He toppled to the floor in front of the underground man.

Jenkins heard the heavy wooden door creak open and Truman's footsteps approaching. He heard Truman untying the underground man from his bonds. Then he felt Truman's strong arms beneath his own body, lifting him up, binding his hands, gagging him, tying him to the board.

Across town, as Jenkins struggled against Truman's strength, muttering the final words of his confession through his rough gag, a tiny, as yet superficial crack in the weathered, neglected foundation of a state-owned children's hospital slowly filled with mortar—a foundation whose repair Jenkins's words of confession had been overseeing for quite some time now.

About the Author
Alisha Mughal was born in Pakistan in 1993, and grew up in Ontario, Canada, where she still resides. She has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. Her stories have appeared in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Eunoia Review, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and The Fem. You can follow her tweets at @alishamgl.