“Mercy Street”, by Jennifer Haigh: an excerpt

Or:

Who asked him? Seriously, your dad has to take care of his own.

His attempts at rational speech backfired. On her very first day on the job, a man approached her on the sidewalk – a stocky guy in Dockers and a fleece jacket, the most ordinary person you could imagine.

“Please, mother,” he said.

She still remembers his singing voice, so soft it sounded sinister. Plus, it was the first time a grown stranger called him Motherwhich is not something you forget.

“Please, mother. Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to you. Please don’t kill your baby.

He had gone to Starbucks. She could smell it on her jacket.

“I work here,” she says.

The change in his behavior was immediate, like an actor breaking a character. He looked at her as if he had walked in shit.

“You are doing the devil’s work,” he said.

Claudia said, “So I was told.”

When he called her a bitch and condemned her to eternal hell, damnation did not faze her; as a non-believer, she found it a bit comical. The insults were more disturbing. Not so much the word itself as the way he said it: triumphantly, as if winning an argument. For a certain type of man, cat was a concealed weapon, discreet, portable, always ready. What did that mean to him, that angry stranger who didn’t own (and perhaps had never seen) the body part he was referring to? A body part he considered repulsive, the vilest thing a person could be.

It was just a word; Claudia knew it. In Great Britain and Ireland, cat was used casually, recreationally – a good-natured insult between friends who, go figure, were usually men. She had learned this years before, in the early days of online dating, from an English Literature professor at Tufts. In a noisy pub a few blocks from campus, he explained that cat was a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which part was all. (“Like forward livestock, he added helpfully.) Then he gave a speech on synecdoche and metonymy, which were not the same thing but were somehow related. Professing this took some time and required him to use the word cat several times. He seemed not to understand, or maybe he understood, that to the female ear, cat is brutal, deliciously personal – half of humanity reduced to a body part, one goal: that’s who you are. That’s all you are.

The part takes the place of everything.

Claudia did not explain this to Professor Tufts. She didn’t want to say the word, and she didn’t want to hear him say it. He was just a guy she had met on the Internet. Her pussy was none of her business.

[ Return to the review of “Mercy Street.” ]

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