The Manchester Review
Steven Millhauser
The Slap
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WALTER LASHER. One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face. Lasher was so startled that he did not move. The man turned and walked briskly away. Lasher was a big man, six one, with broad shoulders and a powerful neck. No one had dared to hit him since the sixth grade. He remembered it still: Jimmy Kubec had pushed him in the chest, and Lasher had swung so hard that he broke Kubec’s nose. Lasher looked around. The man was gone, a few commuters were strolling to their cars. For a moment he had the sensation that he’d dreamed the whole thing: the sudden appearance of the stranger, the slap, the vanishing. His cheek stung: the man had slapped him hard. Lasher entered his car and started home. As he passed under the railroad trestle, crossed Main, and drove along streets lined with maples and sycamores, he kept summoning the little scene in the station parking lot. The man was about five ten, well built, tan trench coat, no hat. It was difficult to remember his face, though he’d made no attempt to hide it and in fact had looked directly at Lasher. What stood out was something about the eyes: a hard, determined look; not rage, exactly — more like a cold sureness. The man had hit him once: hard. Then he had walked away. Lasher pulled over to the side of the road and checked his face in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t certain, but the cheek looked a little red. He pulled back onto the street. The man must have mistaken him for someone else. A crazy guy, some loony off his meds, they should keep them locked up. But he hadn’t looked crazy. Maybe a client, in over his head, unhappy with the performance of his investment portfolio in a tanking market. Or maybe Lasher had offended someone without knowing it, the man had followed him up from the city, and all because of a sharp word, an impatient look, a biting phrase, he had no time for fools, a bumped arm in the street. The man had looked directly at him. Lasher would talk it out with his wife. They’d lived here for twenty six years and nothing like this had ever happened to him. It was why you stayed out of the city, took the long commute. A few blocks from the beach he turned onto his street, where the lights were already on. They must have come on all over town while he was driving from the station. How could he have missed it? The man had taken him by surprise. He hadn’t had time to react. He didn’t like the man’s eyes, didn’t like the thought of himself standing there doing nothing. It was probably too late to call the police — the man would already be far away. Anna would know what to do. Lasher pulled into the drive and sat motionless in the darkening car. The man had looked hard at him: there was no mistake. He should have smashed him in the mouth. Jimmy Kubec had worn a bandage on his face for two weeks. Lasher walked across the flagstones and up the steps of the front porch. In the hall he could smell roast beef and basil. He’d save his misadventure for after dinner. The man had come right up to him and slapped him: hard. As Lasher hung up his hat he understood that he would not speak of it to Anna, who was coming toward him. “Katie called — she’s coming on Saturday. I said it was fine. I mean, what else could I do? Oh, and Jenkovitch left a message. He says he never can get hold of you. He wants you to call him back. Here, give me that. How was your day?”