Issue 7

Steven Millhauser
The Slap

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?”

OUR TOWN. Our town is bordered on the south by a sandy public beach that faces the waters of Long Island Sound and on the north by a stretch of pine and oak woods. To the east lies an industrial city, where streets of crumbling brick factories with smashed windows give way to neighborhoods of new ten-story apartment complexes rising above renovated two-family houses with porches on both floors. To the west lies a wealthy town of five-bedroom homes set back on rural lanes, with a private beach, a horse-riding academy with indoor and outdoor practice rings, and a harbor yacht club where powerboats and racing sailboats are moored on floating docks. We like to think of ourselves as in the middle: well off, as things go, with pockets of wealth at the shore and on Sascatuck Hill, but with plenty of modest neighborhoods where people work hard and struggle to make ends meet. In this way of thinking there’s a certain amount of self-deception, of which we’re perfectly aware — it pleases us to think of ourselves as in the middle, even though, as statistics show, we’re well above the national average in per capita income. Although we’re on the commuter line to Manhattan, many of us work right here in town or in small cities not more than half an hour away. For the most part our lawns are neat, our streets well paved, our trees trimmed once a year by men in orange hats who stand in baskets at the ends of high booms. Our school system is one of the best in the county — we believe in education and pay our teachers well. Our Main Street is lively, with cafés and restaurants and a big department store, despite the new mall out by Route 7. Because we’re on the commuter line, we don’t feel shut away from the center of things, as if we were stuck up in Vermont or Maine, though at the same time we’re happy to be out of the city and take pride in our small-town atmosphere of treeshaded streets, yard sales, and the annual fire department dinner. But make no mistake, there’s nothing quaint about us, what with our new semiconductor headquarters and our high-end boutiques, unless it’s our seventeenth-century town green, with a restored eighteenth-century inn where George Washington is supposed to have spent the night. Most of us know we’re lucky to live in a town like this, where crime is low and the salt water is never more than a short drive away. We also understand that to someone from another place, to someone who is disappointed or unhappy, someone for whom life has not worked out in the way it might have, our town may seem to have a certain self-satisfaction, even a smugness. We understand that, for such a person, there may be much to dislike, in a town like ours.

AT NIGHT. In the middle of the night Walter Lasher woke beside his wife and immediately recalled the episode on the playground that had taken place forty-two years ago. He saw Jimmy Kubec with startling vividness: the thick black combed-back oily hair, the loose jaunty walk, the mocking mouth, the large long-lashed eyes. Kubec had long thin biceps, with a vein running down along each upper arm. He wore black jeans and a tight white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his shoulders. He walked toward Walter, looking at him with a little taunting smile, and as he approached he held up the palm of one hand and made a pushing gesture at the air. He did not touch Walter, who nevertheless felt the mockery and the challenge. Walter had grown six inches over the summer. His shoulders were filling out, and he felt an energy in his arms that was almost like anger. The mocking little gesture cut into him like glass. He walked up to Jimmy Kubec and smashed him in the face. He could see the surprise and pain in Kubec’s dark eyes, the blood streaming from the broken nose, the look that seemed to say: Why did you do that to me? Kubec had no friends. He stayed out of Walter’s way after that, standing alone by a tree in a corner of the schoolyard. Lasher lay in bed and thought: Could it have been him, after all these years? The idea was absurd. The man in the trench coat had sandy hair, sharp features, grayish or bluish eyes. It must have been someone else, someone who had it in for him. He saw it again: Jimmy Kubec coming toward him, the veins in his arms, the little pushing gesture in the air. Kubec hadn’t touched him. All that was in another time, another life. Anna lay with her back to him, her hair rippling over the pillow. On the street a car passed, sending a thin bar of light across one wall and up along the ceiling.

ROBERT SUTLIFF. Some sixteen hours later, Robert Sutliff arrived at the station on the 7:38. It was an hour after his usual time. The lights were on in the lot, though the sky was still gray with the last light. He had worked late — tomorrow’s design presentation was a big one. He still needed a few hours after dinner to do a little fine-tuning, a little last-minute cleanup on the three logos he was planning to show them, each with six presentation pages, with and without type. That way he’d give them the illusion that they were actively involved in the decision process, that they were making a contribution to the final product, while he slowly steered them in the direction of the third mark, the one they wouldn’t be able to resist: the yellow-gold ring surrounding a solid dark coffee-colored circle, as if you were looking at a cup of coffee from above, and in the center a design of classic simplicity, in five bold yellow lines: a horizon line, a half circle representing the rising sun, and three sun rays. Coffee and morning, coffee and the energy of the new day, the energy of a new beginning, all in a visually striking, distinctive, versatile design. It worked perfectly on a two-inch business card, and it would work just as well on a ten-foot billboard or the side of an eighteenwheeler. He hurried down the platform stairs, the stone shining dully under the orange lights. He would talk up the first two designs, the tame one and the way-out one, then hit them with the winner. His car was parked toward the back of the lot, not far from a light pole. As he reached into his pocket for his key, he heard someone walking up to him. Sutliff turned. The man raised his arm and swung at Sutliff’s face. Sutliff heard the sharp sound of the slap, like a gunshot. “Hey!” he shouted, but the man was striding away. His cheek burned. The man had struck him hard, but it wasn’t a punch, he hadn’t made a fist. Sutliff angrily began to follow him, shouted again, and stopped. That was not how he did things. He knew exactly how he did things. Sutliff looked around, rubbed his cheek, and got into his car. He drove quickly out of the lot, turned onto Main, made a left onto South Redding, and stopped at the police station. A man in a trench coat, no hat. Five ten, five eleven. Short hair, brown, darkish, hard to tell. Clean shaven, mid-thirties. A stranger. They would send a car out right away. Sutlciff thanked the officer and continued on his way home. What angered him about the whole thing was that people liked him; people took to him. It was part of his success. It had been that way as far back as kindergarten. It had all come together in high school, where he’d set a new record in the hundred-meter dash, acted the part of Tom in The Glass Menagerie — Blow out your candles, Laura! — and nailed Sandra Harding in her living room in front of the fireplace after the spring dance. UPenn, Harvard Business. Now he was someone to watch, someone on the way up, though always with a friendly greeting, a kind word for everyone. The man had looked at him angrily. Sutliff tried to think who it could be. He had a good memory for faces; it was no one he knew. Sutliff loved his wife, his daughter, his work; there had been the one brief fling in the months before Amy’s birth, but that was two years ago, no husband in the picture, no brother, she’d been good about it, disappointed but not bitter. He had nothing to reproach himself with. Who would do this? His cheek felt hot. The man had swung hard but hadn’t made a fist, hadn’t wanted anything from him. A crazy mistake. The police would take care of it.

AT BREAKFAST. At breakfast Walter Lasher turned over a page of the Daily Observer and saw a small item: Robert Sutliff, of 233 Greenfield Terrace, had been attacked by a man in the parking lot of the railroad station at 7:41 p.m. The unknown assailant had slapped his face. Police were looking for a man about five ten or eleven, with short dark hair, wearing a tan trench coat. Lasher glanced up at his wife, who was pouring herself a second cup of coffee. He was aware of a sharp, exhilarating sense of relief, almost of gratitude. The man had not singled him out from all the others, had not come after only him. Lasher knew Sutliff, though not well. Sutliff was younger, moved with a different crowd, had come up from the city a few years ago. They nodded on the morning platform, said hello in the hardware store. Lasher’s sense of relief was suddenly charged with uneasiness. The man’s hair had been lightcolored, not dark. All the more reason for coming forward now, telling what he knew. Sutliff hadn’t even mentioned the color of the eyes. Details were streaming back: the pale angry eyes, the stern mouth, the buttons on the shoulder straps, the looped belt. It would be difficult to go to the police, since he’d be forced to explain his earlier silence. Better to think it over, give it another day or so. The man had to be stopped. People had enough to worry about without this kind of crap. Lasher, reaching for his coffee, missed the handle and rattled the cup on the saucer. Anna looked up. “Nothing,” he said. “I didn’t say anything,” she said.

CHARLES KRAUS. Charlie Kraus, marketing manager of Sportswear West, returned from the city at dusk and walked down the steps into the parking lot. He’d read the paper at breakfast that morning and had discussed the incident on the way to the city with Chip Hynes and Bob Zussman, who had said: “It’s always a dame.” Kraus wasn’t so sure. Just like Zussman to use a word like that: dame. Kraus glanced at the rows of cars stretching from the station building to the chain-link fence at the far end. The sun had set, but the sky was still pale gray — the lights hadn’t yet come on. Two feet away, the taillights of an SUV suddenly glowed red. Kraus stopped and let the car back out. He wondered, not for the first time, how many people got hit by cars in places like this each year. Parking lots were an example of efficient but flawed design: you found a way to bring as many cars as possible into a confined space, but anyone walking to or from a car was in constant danger of being struck by a vehicle backing out. All solutions were impractical. One night it came to him: a system of overhead walkways with a separate stairway leading down to each car. He could patent it and make a fortune. In the morning he’d laughed at himself. Kraus looked around. Not much place to hide: just row after row of cars. Those ailanthus trees and sumac bushes along the fence, a big trash bin over by the slope. To take you by surprise, a man would have to crouch down between two cars, where it would be a cinch to spot him — especially at this hour, with two dozen people walking to different locations, cutting across, looking around. At night it was a different story. The fluted-steel light poles were too far apart, the highpressure sodium lights didn’t give off as much illumination as the halide lights the Public Works folks had wanted, but hey, you get what you pay for. It wouldn’t be all that hard to keep out of sight. The thought angered him. He’d moved to this town ten years ago because it was safe. Good schools for his kids, plenty of parks, the beach: all of it safe. That’s why you moved to the suburbs. That’s why you gave up delis with jars of fat pickles on the counter. If he wanted to spend his time worrying about what could happen in a parking lot after sunset he might as well go back to Brooklyn. The whole thing would probably blow over by the time he flew out to Chicago next week. The hotel had one of the best gyms in the country, with big windows high up over the lake. Just ahead, a man stepped around the back of a van. Kraus glanced over. The man strode up to him, raised his hand, and slapped him hard in the face. He looked at Kraus for a moment, then turned briskly away. The look was hostile and cold. Kraus waited for the man to disappear — he must have ducked behind a row of cars — then took out his cell phone and called the police.

COFFEE SHOPS AND RESTAURANTS. We read about it the next morning on the front page of the Daily Observer. We had taken note of the first incident, the one reported by Robert Sutliff, which had seemed to us a misunderstanding of some sort, a bizarre error that would soon be explained. A second attack was far more serious. It seemed to be part of a deliberate plan, though exactly what was at stake remained unclear. All over town, people were talking about it: in coffee shops and restaurants, at gas station pumps, in the post office and the CVS, in high school hallways, on slatted benches beside potted trees in the mall. We wondered who he could possibly be, this stranger who had appeared among us with his angry eyes. Some argued that the man was mentally unstable and was working out some private drama. Others insisted that he knew his victims and had lain in wait for them. Still others, a small group, claimed that the attacks were some form of social statement: it was no accident, they said, that the assailant had chosen the station parking lot during early-evening rush hour, when businessmen carrying laptops were returning from the city to their leafy suburban town. Everyone agreed that the incidents were disturbing and that the station parking lot was in need of twenty-four-hour police surveillance.

TWO DESCRIPTIONS. From the two descriptions, we learned that the assailant was a male caucasian about five nine or ten or eleven, solid in build, clean-shaven. His hair was short, light brown or dark brown, neatly combed. He had brown or gray or blue eyes, a straight wellshaped nose, and a slightly protruding chin. He might have been thirty or thirty-five years old. Both victims agreed that the man had looked angry. He wore a beige or tan double-breasted trench coat. According to Kraus, the belt had been tied, not buckled. Sutliff, who wasn’t sure about the belt, remembered the coat fairly well. It was the sort of trench coat that anyone on that train between the ages of twenty-five and sixty might have been wearing — an expensive coat, well cut, stylish in a conservative way.

RICHARD EMERICK. At 6:45 the next morning Richard Emerick parked in his space at the station, reached over to the door handle, and stopped. He glanced at his watch: too late to go back. He had made a mistake, but at least he’d caught it in time. Foolishly, without thought, he had thrown on his trench coat; the forecast was for rain in the morning, heavy at times, tapering off toward noon. But ever since the Serial Slapper had appeared, a trench coat was bound to attract suspicious attention. True, Emerick’s hair was blond, and it wasn’t particularly short, though who knew what “short” meant, and besides, people were careless. He slipped off his trench coat, draped it over his arm, and stepped out of the car. That was worse; the coat, on this chilly morning, drew attention to itself, as if he were trying to conceal it in some way, as in fact he was trying to do. He glanced around, folded the coat into a squarish lump, and placed it quickly under his arm. Worse still: he was ruining the coat, and it was no less conspicuous. The sky was darker than before; rain was definitely on its way. Emerick opened the door, popped the trunk, and walked to the back of the car. He shook out his trench coat, folded it twice, and laid it in the trunk on top of two eco-friendly reusable grocery bags decorated with fields of yellow wildflowers. He closed the trunk, pressed the lock button on his key, and set off toward the station as the first drops began to fall.

RAYMOND SORENSEN. That afternoon, a little before one o’clock, Ray Sorensen, a cable repairman at the end of his lunch break, walked out of the Birchwood Avenue branch of the First Puritan Savings Bank, where he had deposited his paycheck and withdrawn eighty dollars from the ATM. The money would get him through the next couple of days, with a lottery ticket thrown in. The Sunday landscaping gig ought to see him through the rest of the week, though he was a month late on his car payment and he might have to cash out his savings account to pay down his credit-card debt. The sky as overcast, a fifty-fifty chance of rain; he had to drive out of town and check a power line at a property up by the lake. As he walked toward his truck, a man stepped from the row of high bushes that grew on the concrete divider, walked between two parked cars, and turned toward the bank. As he drew near Sorensen, he swerved toward him and began to raise an arm. Only then did Sorensen remember the article he had glanced at in the paper that morning. He’d been amused; it had nothing to do with him. The slap was so sudden and so strong that for a moment he didn’t understand what had happened. By the time he shouted “What the fuck!” the man in the trench coat was already walking away. Sorensen started running after him. The man stepped onto the divider and disappeared behind a high bush. Later Sorensen told the police that the stranger just seemed to vanish into thin air — though maybe he’d had time to cross to the other side of the lot and climb the fence separating the bank from the house behind it. Sorensen searched behind every bush on the divider. He walked up and down the lot, circled the bank, then returned to his truck and drove out to his job. Only when he arrived home at 5:45 did he read the paper again. He thought it over and phoned the police.

AT THE RAIL ROAD STATION. At the moment when Raymond Sorensen noticed a man stepping from behind the bushes on the divider outside the First Puritan Savings Bank, a patrol car was cruising slowly through the lanes of the railroad station parking lot. A few hours later a second policeman appeared on the station platform, where he walked up and down and looked out over the rows of parked cars stretching away. At 5:00, on the street overpass that looked down at the tracks, the gantries, the brick station, the taxis by the curb, and the parking lot that ran along the length of the tracks for several blocks, a third policeman stood leaning his elbows on the cast-iron railing as he surveyed the movement below. The sky was clearing. Men and women walked swiftly to their cars, looking about carefully; many of them stayed in groups, which became smaller as they came to each vehicle in turn. At 6:00 the security lights came on, an hour earlier than usual. Under the pale sky and glowing lights, the roofs and hoods of cars looked glazed, like candy. The last train arrived at 2:57 a.m. A half-moon hung in the dark blue sky, like another security light.

NEXT MORNING. We read about the attack on Raymond Sorensen the next morning in the Daily Observer. We were alarmed that it had taken place in broad daylight, far from the railroad station. Even more disturbing was the violation of a second pattern: this time the victim wasn’t a businessman returning from his high-paying job in the city but a uniformed worker on his lunch break in town. We realized that we’d taken a kind of comfort in thinking of the attacks as confined to the station parking lot after sunset, when commuters in expensive suits were coming home for dinner; suddenly our anger, our anxiety, which had been confined to narrow bounds, burst free with a rush of energy. Where would the stranger strike next? The attack outside the bank seemed to strengthen the argument of those who believed the assaults were random. Others claimed that the opposite was clearly the case: the attacker liked to stage his event in parking lots. Those who had insisted that the assailant was seeking out suit-and-tie commuters as a form of social protest were forced to abandon or modify their argument, while those who had suggested that the attacker knew his victims saw no reason to abandon their explanation. New opinions had it that the stranger’s real interest lay in disrupting order, in spreading fear, in taunting the police.

THE COAT. The coat raised a number of questions that none of us could answer. If, during the attack on Robert Sutliff and Charles Kraus, the man had been wearing steel-toe work boots, jeans, and an open-necked plaid flannel shirt over a T-shirt, then we might have subscribed to the theory of protest: the attacker, a blue-collar worker, bore a grudge against the white-collar element of our town. Since, however, the man was wearing a fashionable coat, with the belt looped in front, and was therefore dressed like a successful businessman who might easily have lived in our town and ridden our train, the theory of social or class protest was unacceptable — unless, of course, the stranger had deliberately adopted a costume that wouldn’t draw attention to itself in the station parking lot. The third attack — we hadn’t yet learned about Walter Lasher — complicated our already complicated sense of things. A man dressed like a businessman had attacked a cable repairman in work clothes. What could it mean? Perhaps, we thought, the stranger had lost his job; simmering with rage, he was taking out his frustration on anyone still fortunate enough to have work. It was also possible that the coat had nothing at all to do with the man and what he was after, and that we were guilty of reading into a piece of clothing a significance that was meaningless.

IN THE HARDWARE STORE. On Saturday afternoon, six hours after the Daily Observer reported the attack on Raymond Sorensen, Walter Lasher stood in the hardware store, examining a row of light-switch plates. As he began weighing the virtues of old-fashioned brass switch plates against a display of new steel plates in bright colors, Joan Summers, who lived three houses away from him, passed the aisle on her way to weather stripping and noticed him standing there. Joan Summers hesitated. He seemed so intent on his switch plates that she felt reluctant to disturb him, even with a greeting; at the same time, now that she had paused, she felt it would be rude to ignore him, especially if he’d happened to see her out of the corner of his eye. Instead, therefore, of entering the aisle, Joan stood at the end and called down: “Oh, hello there.” What happened next surprised her. Walter Lasher glanced abruptly, as if furtively, in her direction, gave a quick nod, and turned back to his switch plates. They were not close friends, but they had been neighbors for many years and had always had pleasant exchanges. Joan Summers marched off toward the aisle of weather stripping, which she needed for the downstairs bathroom window. His behavior verged on rudeness but had not seemed rude, exactly: it had seemed peculiar. Walter Lasher was not a peculiar man. Joan Summers shook it out of her mind but was careful not to go to the cash register until she was absolutely certain that Lasher had left the store.

A RIPPLE OF DISAPPOINTMENT. As the weekend passed without incident, we wondered whether the man had been frightened away by the police presence, or whether he was lying low, waiting for another chance. It was also possible that he had settled his score, whatever it was, that he had done what he’d come to do and had left our town forever. Our sense of relief was accompanied by a ripple of disappointment. For though we were happy to be rid of him, if in fact we were rid of him, we were annoyed at our failure to catch him and troubled by our inability to understand anything whatever about who he was or what he was trying to do. Many of us, while openly expressing pleasure at his disappearance, secretly admitted that we would have been happier if something worse had happened in our town, even much worse, so long as it was something we were able to understand, like murder.

VICTIM. Even as we were growing accustomed to the word “victim” in relation to these incidents, we began to ask ourselves to what extent the word corresponded to our sense of what had actually taken place. No one doubted that something impermissible, even outrageous, had been done to all three men, but it was also true that the attacks had been carefully limited: no robbery had been committed, the stranger had inflicted no physical damage, and he had immediately walked away. Our town, it should be said, is a very safe place in which to live. We take pride in our safety and have no tolerance for crime. Nevertheless, we’re part of the world and are not spared our share of serious trouble: child molestation, felony assault, rape, even two murders in the last seven years. The crime represented by a slap in the face is at most a Class A misdemeanor. To speak of a “victim” might therefore seem to exaggerate the consequences of a deed that, for all its unpleasantness, amounts to very little in the scheme of things. Even so, it seemed to most of us that the suddenness of the attack, the strength of the slap, the apparent randomness, the anger and helplessness induced in the person receiving the slap, all suggested that those who were slapped were indeed victims, though of a strange variety that kept eluding our understanding.

A MULTITUDE OF SLAPS. Although we had read about the three slaps — the ones delivered to the faces of Robert Sutliff, Charles Kraus, and Raymond Sorensen — we knew that the total number of slaps was far greater than those reported in the paper. The three slaps were the visible slaps, the public slaps, the ones that entered the police record and the pages of the Daily Observer. But alongside those slaps there existed a multitude of invisible slaps, of subterranean slaps, which took place solely in our minds. The other slaps struck, over and over again, the faces of Robert Sutliff, Charles Kraus, and Raymond Sorensen, and they struck our own faces as well. We imagined the hand rising, the arm swinging, the palm striking the flesh of a cheek. We heard the peculiar sound of a slap, the crisp soft-hardness of it, like that of a whip. We thought of wood snapping, of ice cracking. We thought of TV footage of distant wars, the sharp clap of gunfire in the night. As we walked along the aisles of a clothing shop in the mall, as we sat at a booth in a coffee shop in town, we heard a rustling of slaps all about us. In our beds at night we heard them, obscured by the passing cars, a distant radio, the roll of trucks on the thruway: the other slaps of our town, a whole chorus of them, rising up out of the quiet like fire crackling in the dark.

SHARON HANDS. On Monday afternoon, as police cars were pulling in and out of parking lots at banks, supermarkets, car dealerships, and medical buildings, Sharon Hands, a senior at Andrew Butler High, waved good-bye to Kelsey Donahue at the corner of Maple and Penrose and continued on her way home. Basketball practice had gone well, though she’d messed up two jump shots; tonight she had a meeting with the Thespians in the school auditorium, and she’d promised her mother that when she returned she’d help go through the pile of catalogues to find a cable-knit sweater for Aunt Debra, who was hard to please at the best of times but impossible on her birthday. There was never a minute left over in the day. She couldn’t help throwing herself into things, her boyfriend had complained about it more than once, but that was who she was, at least for now, though who knew what the future held. But she loved these long walks home, the only time in the whole day, it seemed, when she was by herself. Her legs felt strong, her body was bursting with energy, even after the long school day and the two-hour basketball practice, and as she cut through the little park on the other side of the thruway overpass she looked with pleasure at the row of three swings, the climbing structure with its towers and rope ladders and slides, the slatted bench with a maroon scarf thrown across the back. People thought they knew her, but they didn’t, not really. They thought all she liked was to be surrounded by friends, lots of friends, and though she loved her friends, every single one of them, even Jenny Treadwell with her endless problems and complaints, she also loved these solitary walks between school and home with her cell off, her book bag slung over her shoulder, her long hair bouncing on her back, her arms swinging, her tights showing off her legs, and why not, if you’ve got it flaunt it, and she had it, she knew she did, it was why she loved walking down the halls between classes, walking in town in her stretch tops and jeans, or on the beach in summer, in her pink string bikini, along the hard sand at the water’s edge, the heads turning, the friends waving, the gulls skimming the water, and as she left the park and started along Woods End Road she listened with pleasure to the knock of the heels of her cognac-colored boots against the shady sidewalk. On Woods End Road the houses were large and set well back from the street. High trees rose from the lawns, and shutters spread from the windows like wings. She walked under the branches of old sycamores, their trunks such a lovely green and cream that they made you want to reach out and stroke them, as if they were big soft animals. Oh, sometimes she had strange ideas, funny ideas she shared with no one. She glanced at her watch: she’d be home in five or six minutes, just enough time to text a few friends, call Molly about Friday night, and read a chapter of American Democracy before dinner. As she approached Meadowbrook Lane, a squirrel scampered across a telephone line, a boy raced down a driveway on a skateboard, and in front of her, on her left, a handsome man stepped out from behind a tree. She was used to the smiles of older men. He walked up to her, stopped, and slapped her across the face. The blow hurt; she felt her head bend to one side. She felt like bursting into tears, or screaming at the sky — just screaming. Sharon raised her hand to her cheek, as if to comfort it. No one had ever hit her before: ever. By the time she thought to shout out for help, the man was no longer anywhere to be seen.

DARING. Just as we thought we had come to grips with the attack in the bank parking lot, the incident on Woods End Road shook us to the core. We had accepted, uneasily, the leap from the station parking lot at dusk to the bank parking lot in full daylight, and we had begun to absorb the change from upper-income commuter to two-job worker. Now the rules had changed again: the new victim was female, the scene of the attack a quiet residential street. The stranger, we felt, was widening his range, deliberately and with a kind of artfulness. For wasn’t he announcing, by this latest move, that no one was safe anymore? Of course we condemned the attack on Sharon Hands as an act of cowardice, we were outraged by its unfairness. Still, some of us sensed in it something darker: an element of insolent daring. It was daring because it took place closer to our homes, as if the attacker were moving toward our doors and windows, and it was daring above all because the victim was no match for him in strength. It was as if he wanted us to know that he was no longer limiting himself to those who might be expected to defend themselves.

ANNA LASHER. As she tossed the salad in the cherrywood bowl on the kitchen counter, Anna Lasher realized that she was not looking forward to hearing her husband pull up in the drive. They’d had difficult patches before, but this silence, this refusal to let her know what was worrying him — well, Walter wasn’t the most forthcoming of men at the best of times. Under his public manner there had always been a secretiveness. None of that was new. What was new was the averted eyes, the moody staring off, the office anecdote told coldly, without a flicker of pleasure. After dinner he cleared the table, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and retired to his study. She wondered whether this was it, the famous midlife meltdown: the craving for adventure, the affair with the blond secretary in the spike-heeled boots. She remembered a cartoon he had shown her a few months ago: he’d been tickled by the punch line, but she had noticed the violently jutting breasts of the dumb blonde sitting in the boss’s lap. She carried the bowl of salad into the dining room. On the wall was a painting of Walter’s mother, with two rows of pearls around her neck. Who had a painting like that in their dining room? She wondered suddenly whether she herself had brought all this on — she’d been tired lately, moody, a little short-tempered. As Anna walked into the kitchen she heard the car pull into the drive. She could feel muscles tightening all over her body, as if she were sensing danger.

HELPLESS. In an interview with a reporter from the Daily Observer, Sharon Hands spoke of her feeling of helplessness during the attack. “I felt like there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I was completely at his mercy.” She went on to say that she now knew what it must be like to be abused by a man, and that her heart went out to women everywhere. She said the stranger was a menace to society and urged everyone to cooperate fully with the police. She invited us to check out her brand-new blog; she looked forward to reading our comments. Beside the article appeared a color photograph of Sharon Hands: a pretty girl with straight blond hair, large brown eyes, and an easy smile. On her cheek was a ruddy glow that made us think of the slap. We were upset for many reasons by the attack on Sharon Hands, and we understood her feeling of terrible helplessness. At the same time we had the sense that the interview revealed a young woman who was confident, self-possessed, and not at all unhappy to have our attention.

ANALYSIS OF A SLAP. Those of us who were inclined to distance ourselves from the drama of particular instances, and to think about the slap as a phenomenon in itself, tended to see in it two opposite qualities. In one sense, it seemed to us, a slap is a form of withholding, of refusal: it presents itself as the deliberate absence of a more damaging blow. Its aim isn’t to break a bone or to draw blood, but to fall short of both. The physical evidence of the slap — a redness in the cheek — conveys its meaning perfectly: it is the sign of blood, without the blood. In the same way, the pain of a slap is a sign of the greater pain not inflicted. But looked at another way, the slap doesn’t merely withhold: the slap imparts. What it imparts is precisely the knowledge of greater power withheld. In that knowledge lies the genius of the slap, the deep humiliation it imposes. It invites the victim to accept a punishment that might have been worse — that will in fact be worse if the slap isn’t accepted. The slap requires in the victim an unwavering submission, an utter abnegation. The victim bends in spirit before a lord. In this sense the slap is internal. It is closer to a word than to a blow. The sting passes, the redness fades, but the wound lingers, invisible. Therein lies the deepest meaning of the slap: its real work takes place secretly, out of sight, on the inside.

VALERIEKOZLOWSKI. Two days later, at 9:05 in the evening, Valerie Kozlowski sat at her kitchen table, drinking a cup of mint tea and finishing the daily crossword puzzle she had begun at breakfast. She liked coming home at 7:00 to the mail and the partly filled-in crossword; clues that had seemed vague and elusive at breakfast sometimes became transparent after a nine-hour day at the store and an hour of closing up. She put in six days a week at Now You See It, the consignment shop she co-owned with her sister; in addition, there was the sideline of estate appraisals, which sometimes had her scurrying out at night or on Sundays. They needed to hire a girl to help out, but sales were flat and her sister wanted to wait. Her sister always wanted to wait. What they really needed was a major reorganization. The vintage dresses were crowded against the back wall, pedestal tables and vanities were covered with sugar bowls and snakeskin purses and ivory netsuke warriors and fishermen, the highboy in the corner was half concealed by a rack of furs, and the sale tables along the side walls were cluttered with china teapots, antique butter dishes, and lamps with scenic shades. Items needed to be displayed clearly, without crowding, though how you did that in the cramped space of the store was another question. It was a matter of making hard choices. The Shaker rocker and the set of four nesting tables up front could be moved to the back, making room for a rack of top-of-the-line coats and jackets, but try telling that to her sister. That was why she liked coming home to her puzzle. She could sink into it and distract herself before bed, while making use of the mental energy she always brought back with her, no matter how tired she was. And she was tired at the end of the day, bone-tired, no doubt about it, especially when her sister fell into that bossy tone. She hated that tone, as though Sophia were always thirteen to Valerie’s eleven. They were both pushing forty, and Sophia looked it. You could see the lines carved into her skin from her nose down to both sides of her mouth. Valerie’s own skin was smooth as a girl’s. Not that it did her any good. Valerie had come home in a bad mood. She’d eaten a dinner of warmed-up leftovers, gone through the mail, all worthless except for a ten-dollar coupon from a new kitchen supply store she’d been meaning to have a look at, and talked on the phone for god knows how long with her father, who complained that no one ever called even though she called every single night no matter how tired she was. Now she sat sipping her mint tea and working on her puzzle. At 9:15 she put the cup in the sink, picked up the folded newspaper, and pushed open the swinging door that led into the living room. That was where she liked to finish her puzzle, seated in the armchair with her feet up on the hassock. As she stepped into the room a figure came toward her and raised his hand, and in the instant before terror came rushing in she thought, very distinctly: It’s not fair, I’m a good person, it should have been her.

THE GOOD SISTER. It was all over town the next day: the attack on Valerie Kozlowski, the invasion of her home, the crossing of some final line. We imagined him staking out the house, waiting for nightfall, making his way along the side yard, climbing the back-porch steps. The police report indicated that he had slipped in through an unlocked window. We all knew what it meant: he was coming closer. All this was upsetting enough in itself. What made it worse was that many of us knew Valerie Kozlowski, had spent time in her store. She was the one known as the Good Sister, the one you felt easy speaking to when you asked about a Chinese vase or an old record player from the 1950s. She had a good heart, you could see that. Why would anyone want to hurt her? But as soon as we began asking ourselves such questions, we understood that until this moment we had held out a kind of secret hope. With the others, there might have been some excuse, something we didn’t know, which might have explained the attacks. Maybe each one of them, even Sharon Hands, had done something that deserved punishment. But the attack on the Good Sister was a simple outrage that couldn’t be explained away. It was as if we’d been living with an illusion, and the attack on the Good Sister had been directed not at her but at us, at our illusion. We’d been hoping for an explanation, an easy way out — but wasn’t he warning us against sentimentality? If so, it had worked. We hated him. We wanted him dead.

ANOTHER VIEW OF THE COAT. Valerie Kozlowski’s description of the attacker made it clear that he was the same man, wearing the same coat. In fact it was so clear that we began to wonder why he never tried to change his appearance. Was it that he wanted us to recognize him as the one who slapped us? If, at first, he had chosen a trench coat in order to blend in with the commuters at the train station, by now the coat served the opposite purpose: it was the very symbol of danger, the sign that leaped out at us so vividly that trench coats had virtually disappeared from our town. It was, we thought, part of his daring. He was eluding the police, he was entering our homes, adorned in the very costume that allowed him the least chance of escaping detection. Out of this thought a question arose: Why this sign, rather than another? He might have chosen a windbreaker and ski mask, he might have chosen anything. The trench coat was a sign of the suburban commuter. By extension it was the sign of our town. Was he trying to say that he was one of us? Or was he not one of us, but someone who had adopted the coat contemptuously, in a spirit of parody?

WE WHO WERE NOT SLAPPED. We of course felt sympathy for those who had been slapped. It was impossible not to imagine the moment: the stranger emerging from nowhere, the flare of danger, the hand raised to strike a blow. We wondered how they must have felt, those unlucky ones, as the sound rang out, as the stranger walked away. We wondered what we ourselves would have done, as he stepped up to us with his angry eyes. We understood that our compassion for the victims had in it a touch of superiority, of condescension, which the fortunate are bound to feel for the less fortunate, and we tried not to feel too great a pleasure in having escaped their fate. We understood one other thing. Even though we were pleased to have been spared, even though we were the ones to whom nothing ugly had happened, still we wondered, at times, whether they were more fortunate than we. After all, their ordeal was over, they had been tested, they had nothing more to fear, whereas we, the innocent ones, we, the unsnapped, walked in a world crackling with danger. It was as if they knew something that we didn’t know. At times we even envied them a little.

WALTERLAS HER AND THE FOOTSTEPS. Walter Lasher walked along the station platform, carrying his laptop in one hand and a New York Times folded under the other arm. It was nearly dark; he had worked late. Once again he’d drifted off at his desk in the afternoon, not a nap thank god, but close to it, sitting there with half-closed eyes and drumming temples. There was still a good crowd at this hour, though he sensed a nervous watchfulness as they approached the stairs leading down to the lot. It was lit up now by those orange lights that made everything look like a stage set awaiting the actors. He himself had no anxiety, only a dull, heavy irritation as he entered the lot and began walking toward Section B. The police were hopeless, not a clue in all this time. The town was no longer what it used to be. When he’d first moved here from the city, it still had the feeling of a small old-fashioned place tucked away at the end of the commuter line. Now you had upscale retailers fighting for prime locations, the old drugstore gone, the news store gone, corporate headquarters springing up, teardowns replaced by monster houses built out to the property line. Asians moving into the newer neighborhoods, all professionals, all very classy, even a touch of India, that woman coming out of the wine shop in a rose-colored sari carrying herself like a foreign queen. The stranger in the coat was part of it somehow, as if he’d been swept in along with everything else. It was all nonsense, he wasn’t thinking straight. As Lasher walked toward his car, three rows away, he heard footsteps not far behind him. It wasn’t unusual, in the station parking lot, at this hour, to hear footsteps not far behind you, but these were not usual times. Lasher felt a tension rippling through his upper back. The footsteps drew closer. As if he were moving a heavy weight, he turned his head slowly. He saw a man in a long coat coming swiftly toward him. Lasher turned his body around. He stepped forward and swung his open hand violently against the man’s face. As his palm cracked against flesh, knocking the face to one side and throwing the body back against a car, he felt deeply soothed, as if he had sunk down into a warm bath after a long hard day. A moment later he saw that the coat was a double-breasted wool coat, dark, no belt, the face different, older. He understood that it was all part of a necessary pattern, and a tiredness came over him, even as he took a step forward and began talking very fast.

SILENCE. When we read in the Daily Observer about the assault in the station parking lot, where both men were quickly arrested, when we learned that Walter Lasher had himself been slapped but had not come forward, we didn’t know whether we were more disturbed by his attack on Dr. Daniel Ettlinger, who was returning from a visit to his sister in Mamaroneck, or by the long concealment of information that might have been useful to the police. Had Walter Lasher gone immediately to the police, the man in the trench coat might have been apprehended, or at least prevented by police surveillance and public awareness from pursuing his series of attacks. It was true enough that Robert Sutliff’s swift response had not stopped the stranger in any way, and in fact, when we thought more carefully about it, we didn’t believe for one second that a report by Walter Lasher would have changed the course of events. Nevertheless, his silence troubled us, in a way we found difficult to define. Was it that, by his silence, he was acknowledging what many of us felt to be the dark truth of the attacks, namely, that they were a humiliation too deep to bear? We tried to imagine Walter Lasher carrying his secret with him, day after day, while police cars patrolled the streets of every neighborhood, and citizen watch committees reported the presence of any stranger, and daily editorials urged that more safety measures be taken by town authorities. We thought of Walter Lasher riding the train home from work, with his secret squatting in his chest. We imagined the secret as a small, hairy animal with sharp teeth. We wondered what it felt like, to be slapped in the face, hard, and to say nothing about it. We wondered what thoughts passed through Walter Lasher’s mind, night after night, as he lay in bed, feeling his secret biting inside him.

INEVITABLE. We now lived in anticipation of the next attack, which felt inevitable. Parents drove their children to school and walked with them from the street or parking lot into the building; when the school bell rang at the end of the last class, parents were waiting grimly outside the front door. Members of neighborhood watch groups walked up and down sidewalks, displaying the yellow-and-black armbands that had become the sign of our vigilance. Police cars roamed the streets, stopping from time to time to ask us if we had noticed anything unusual, anything at all. People were urged to keep their doors and windows locked, to stay home after dark, to travel in groups whenever possible, to keep outdoor and indoor lights on throughout the night, to be watchful at all times, to report any suspicious behavior immediately. Whether our measures were effective, or whether the man was simply biding his time, we had no way of knowing, but the days passed without incident. We tried to anticipate his next step, which we imagined as a deeper violation: perhaps the invasion of a bedroom, late at night, where he would slap us in our sleep. We would wake up and see him staring down at us with his angry eyes. Or maybe, now that he’d struck a high school girl and a woman who lived alone, he would seek out a child. He would find a little girl playing alone in her yard. He would raise his hand high in the air, he would hit her so hard in the face that she’d be hurled to the ground. We ate breakfast tensely, in town we walked briskly, we turned our heads at the slightest sound.

POCKETS. It was understood that to wear a trench coat, in the present atmosphere, was foolish and even dangerous. Anyone seen in such a coat was bound to arouse suspicion. And so they hung there, the abandoned trench coats of our town, on coat racks standing by the front door, or on hangers suspended from horizontal poles in hall closets: lacquered wooden hangers with polished-steel swivel hooks, thin metal hangers, hangers of heavy-duty chrome. They hung between fleece jackets, nylon windbreakers, quilted coats with faux-fur collars, wool sweaters, leather bomber jackets, peacoats, hooded parkas, corduroy blazers. There they hung, almost but not quite forgotten. Sometimes when we thought of the abandoned trench coats, we were inspired to strange fantasies. We imagined that the trench coats had the power to leave our closets and to roam our streets at night. We saw them drifting through town like restless and unhappy ghosts. In certain moods, we imagined them swept up by a great wind. They rise swirling into the air, the abandoned trench coats of our town, and as they turn round and round, their arms wave, their tails flap, and their pockets spill, releasing, high over the night roofs, high over the dark beach with its forsaken lifeguard stands, high over the stoplights of Main Street, a great shower of quarters and dimes, half-opened rolls of cough drops, lunch receipts, house keys on flashlight chains, sticks of chewing gum, folded train schedules, small bags of cashews, halves of cider doughnuts in waxed paper, subway cards, sunglass cases, energy bars, telephone numbers on pieces of scrap paper.

MATTHEW DENNIS. Matthew Dennis, twenty-five years old, a reporter for the Daily Observer who had been assigned to cover the attacks after Charles Kraus had phoned the police, swung out of his seat as the train pulled into the station. He had spent the afternoon in Manhattan and was returning at the height of rush hour. It was all his boss’s idea: ride the train into the city with the morning crowd, listen to the talk, get a feeling for the mood. Ride the train back, keep your ears open, give us the word on the train, the word out in the lot. Circulation was way up, everyone was following the story. Matthew had been against the whole scheme. Better to make the rounds of the neighborhoods, interview uppermanagement types on Sascatuck Hill, talk to the guys in the gas station next to Sal’s Pizza, but who was he to turn down a free trip to the city, and besides, he’d had some good conversations down and back and had typed up most of them on his laptop. Everybody had a theory: the man would next strike at midnight, the man was an ex-cop, the man was seeking attention for a reality show. In Matthew’s view the attacker was following a pattern, but one that was difficult to pin down. He’d begun with four men, then turned to women; he’d begun in the station parking lot, then changed to a parking lot in town, to a residential street, to a living room at night. It appeared that what he liked to do was raise an expectation and suddenly swerve away — he liked taking the town by surprise. Matthew walked along the platform, exchanging a few words with Charlie Kraus. Then he stood by the steps for a while, looking down at the lot: the lights were on, though the sky was still dusk-blue. People walked in careful groups, looking around, making sure. A man came up to him and asked for a light. Matthew had stopped smoking a year ago. The man was in his mid-thirties, sharp-featured, a solid build; except for the zippered jacket, he could have been the stranger. A woman laughed: a high, nervous laugh, like a laugh rehearsed for a play. “My husband picks me up,” he heard someone say. “I don’t park here anymore.” Matthew walked down the steps. In the morning he’d first parked near the station, then changed his mind and chosen a spot farther away. He needed to walk with the crowd, listen to what people were saying, study their faces. His job on the paper was strictly temporary, until something better came along, or until he could get going on a book, but he liked it well enough, it might lead to something, you never could tell. He turned quickly when he heard what sounded like a half-stifled cry. It was only a girl who had stumbled in her heels and was clinging to her boyfriend’s arm. Everyone was thinking about the stranger, looking around. Matthew had his own theory, which he sometimes believed: that everyone had a secret, a shameful thing they had done, and the reason they feared the stranger was that he made them remember that thing. He himself, for example, had done some things in college he’d rather forget. He stepped up to his car, bent over to glance through the window — one of his ideas was that the stranger concealed himself in parked cars, which he knew how to open — and placed his key in the door. He heard a step, a single crunch of gravel, and turned with a feeling of excitement and intense curiosity. The man in the trench coat had already raised a hand, and as the palm cracked against his cheek with a force that brought tears to his eyes, Matthew was aware of the look of stern anger in the stranger’s eyes, as if he were delivering a judgment.

HIGHLY INTELLIGENT. We read about that judgment in next morning’s Daily Observer, where Matthew Dennis recounted in detail his simulated commute, the overheard conversations, his thoughts on the station platform, his observations of crowd behavior, his walk to the car, the details of the attack. He did more than report the incident: he said that the stranger’s return to the station parking lot was evidence of a highly intelligent plan. The attacker had led us to believe that he was intent on entering our homes, on striking our most defenseless citizens, on violating our deepest privacies. As we prepared for the next attack, as our police force and our watch committees gave their full attention to our streets and houses, he returned boldly to the original scene, which he had seemed to abandon. Not only, by this maneuver, had he eluded detection; he had also made us rethink the meaning of the attacks. Far from spreading random terror, the Slapper was making a point: his target was not particular people, but the town itself. In the attacker’s mind, our town was represented largely, but not entirely, by commuters; hence four out of seven incidents had taken place in the station parking lot. Had he wished to initiate a reign of random terror, he would have spread his attacks far more widely. Moreover, the seven victims were less different than one might suppose at first glance. Although it was impossible to condone the attacks on Sharon Hands and Valerie Kozlowski, it was important to remember that Sharon Hands, the daughter of a corporate lawyer, attended a well-funded and highly regarded public high school, a symbol of membership in the community, while Valerie Kozlowski wasn’t a minimum-wage worker with no health insurance and no benefits but the co-owner of a small business. He himself, Matthew Dennis, was a reporter for the local paper, which meant that he was part of the way the town presented itself to itself. The victim who seemed to fit in least was Ray Sorensen, but that was precisely the point: Sorensen was all the others who lived in our flourishing town, all those who occupied the lower ranks of the social scale and sometimes had to work a second job in order to buy groceries and pay the bills. It was the purpose of the attacks, Matthew Dennis said, to punish all those who were guilty, not just those at the top of the heap, and what the victims were guilty of was living in our town. The long article ended with the hope that we would think less about our safety and more about the reasons why we might be guilty for living in a town such as ours. He himself harbored no resentment and vowed to become a better person.

NOT GUILTY. Although the details of the attack on Matthew Dennis drew our fascinated attention, our reading of the article resulted, for the most part, in impatience and resentment. Matthew Dennis, we felt, had a twisted sympathy for his attacker; we distrusted his analysis of the man’s motives and, in rereading the article, we began to distrust certain details of the attack itself. Most of us would not have felt “intense curiosity” at the sight of an angry man in a parking lot at night, raising his hand to strike us in the face. We were baffled, we were exasperated, by Matthew Dennis’s lack of outrage. The same absence of anger was all too evident in his analysis, which seemed less sympathetic to us than to the man who had attacked our neighbors, disrupted our peace, and frightened our children. The next morning, angry letters appeared in the Daily Observer, denouncing Matthew Dennis and questioning the judgment of the editors in running the story. What particularly galled us was the suggestion that all of us might be guilty and deserving of punishment. After all, we were not members of some revolutionary gang who had raided an enemy town and committed rape and murder, we were not passive citizens turning our heads away as smoke rose from the concentration camp chimneys. No, we were peaceful, law-abiding inhabitants of a suburban town, trying to raise our kids in a difficult world, while keeping our lawns mowed and our roof gutters free of leaves. The man was a criminal and needed to be put away. The next morning, an editorial acknowledged the storm of protest and stated that the opinions of the article were not necessarily those of the Daily Observer. The more we thought about it, the more offended we were by Matthew Dennis’s report, so that we almost forgot, in our indignation, that the stranger had struck another blow.

WAITING. Again we waited, like people looking up at the sky for a storm. This time we sensed a difference. Now there was anger in our town — you could feel it like a wind. We were angry at the presence of danger in our streets, angry at the police department, angry at being put on the defensive by reporters whose job it was to give us the facts and keep their cracked ideas to themselves. You could feel a tension in public places, an uneasiness at the dinner table. On the streetcorner across from the post office in the center of town, a dozen people stood with signs that read keep our streets safe and more police. A bearded man with a ponytail held a sign printed in large red letters: the judgment is coming. Tempers were short. In the library parking lot, a fight broke out when one car backed into another. We went to bed early and lay there listening. Waking in the dark, we pushed aside the blinds and looked out our bedroom windows at houses glowing with light: the front porch lights, the living room lights, floodlights over garage doors, lanterns on lawns — as if our town were having a party all through the night.

DIVINE PUNISHMENT. One of the more bizarre developments of the lull was the emergence of certain shrill, fanatical voices, which saw the stranger as a messenger of the divine will. A letter in the opinions section of the Daily Observer, signed Beverly Olshan, stated that our town was being punished for its sins. We became aware of small groups, which perhaps had always been there, with names like Daughters of Jericho and Prophets of the Heavenly Host; members of the latter proclaimed that the stranger had been sent by the Lord to warn us of his wrath unless we mended our ways. Even those of us who dismissed such ideas as ignorant or childish could not escape the thought that the stranger was punishing us, like an angry father, for something we had done, or for something we had failed to do, or for something else, which we ought to have known but did not.

THE PACKAGE. Seven days after the attack on Matthew Dennis, a package addressed to the police department was deposited on the top step of the post office at some time between midnight and 5:00 a.m. At 5:00 a.m. a mail carrier starting his shift noticed it from his truck. Later that morning, post office officials met for a brief consultation and decided to summon the police. Rumors about the incident first appeared on Matthew Dennis’s new website, but we had to wait for the morning paper before we could read a definitive report. The package, wrapped in brown paper, bore no return address. The police determined that the suspicious-looking parcel posed no danger. Back at the department they carefully removed the brown paper and found a plain cardboard box, tied with white string. In the box lay a tan trench coat, neatly folded. No note had been enclosed. There was little doubt, though no proof, that it was the coat of the stranger. Apparel experts had been called in, lab tests were being conducted, a thorough investigation was under way. Meanwhile we wondered what the stranger wanted us to think. Was he announcing that his attacks had come to an end, or was he warning us that we should expect a new attack in a different disguise? For a week, for two weeks, we led anxious lives, alert to the minutest signs. Toward the end of the third week, as leaves turned yellow and red and the sun shone from a cold blue sky, we began to have the sense of a burden slowly lifting.

DISSATISFACTION. Although we could feel ourselves moving toward the normal course of our lives, with all the familiar pleasures and worries, at the same time we couldn’t escape a sense of incompletion. The proper ending, we felt, should have been the capture of the stranger, who would have given us the explanation we desperately needed to hear. We would have listened carefully, nodded our heads thoughtfully, and punished him to the full extent of the law. Then we would have forgotten him. Instead we’d been left with an improper ending, an ending heavy with uncertainties, which was to say, no ending at all. The police investigation had come to nothing. We asked ourselves whether the stranger had left because he found it impossible to continue his attacks without serious risk of being caught, or whether he’d left because he had completed a careful plan to attack seven people. Even if we had known the reason for his departure, we still wouldn’t have known why he had come in the first place. What had he wanted from us? What had we done? In certain respects, the end of the attacks was more disturbing than the attacks themselves, since the attacks held a continual promise of capture and revelation, whereas the end of the attacks was also an end of the hope that had always accompanied them. In this sense, the end of the attacks was simply another way of continuing them — a way that could not be stopped.

THE SEVEN WHO WERE SLAPPED. It was at this time, when we were returning uneasily to our former sense of things, that meetings began to spring up all over town, for the purpose of discussing and analyzing recent events. There were large public meetings at the town hall and in the auditorium of one of our two high schools, gatherings at businessmen’s associations and fraternal organizations, at the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, at the Ethical Culture Society and the Jewish Community Center, at the First Congregational Church and the Church of the Immaculate Conception, to say nothing of private get-togethers in living rooms, dens, and finished basements. Often, at these meetings, one of the seven who were slapped appeared as a special guest, with the exception of Walter Lasher, who never accepted such invitations or even acknowledged them. The guest spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes and then answered questions from the audience. What did it feel like when the stranger appeared? How much did the slap hurt? Did you fear he might kill you? What was he trying to prove? Even Valerie Kozlowski, once she overcame her reticence, took to the podium with surprising vigor. The most popular speakers proved to be Sharon Hands, whose long blond hair came sweeping down over her shoulders and lay against silky blouses of cerise, emerald, and brilliant white, and the controversial Matthew Dennis, who wore an old sport coat, a black shirt open at the neck, jeans without a belt, and white running shoes, and who liked to walk back and forth in front of us, punctuating his remarks with slashing movements of his hands and turning suddenly to face the audience. Now and then a speaker appeared even at one of the fringe groups, such as Prophets of the Heavenly Host, that had begun to attract a wider membership and now held public meetings in rented halls. As we sat in the audience and watched a speaker, we sometimes experienced an odd kind of envy, as if, by not being slapped, we had failed to be part of a profound moment, had somehow, by our caution, evaded a call to adventure. At the same time we understood that we were already forgetting the precise feel of those troubled days, which were slipping away into history and taking on the warm, soft colors of a sentimental rural painting (“Red Barn and Clouds,” “Morning Sleigh Ride”) suitable for the walls of banks, hospital waiting rooms, and the hobbies of office buildings.

BLOSSOMING. One morning at the station parking lot, as if by secret agreement, the trench coats returned. Tan, beige, and taupe, they emerged from car after car, like pale flowers blossoming in the early morning light. Richard Emerick had put on his trench coat in the front hall, but he had paused, thought hard, and then removed it, choosing instead the black wool coat with lambskin-trim collar that he usually saved for later in the year. As he stepped from his car in the parking lot he immediately saw his mistake. In his fingers he could feel the pressure of the belt-ends as he looped them over in front. The forecast for tomorrow was light rain in the early morning. He would be ready for it.

SUCCESS AND FAILURE. As the slaps began to recede, as even their echo in our minds was becoming fainter and fainter, we wondered whether we had emerged successfully from our ordeal. To call it an ordeal was of course something of an exaggeration. After all, we hadn’t been murdered. We hadn’t been raped, or beaten, or stabbed, or robbed. We had only been slapped. Even so, we had been invaded, had we not, we had felt threatened in our streets and homes, we had been violated in some definite though enigmatic way. Therefore, when the attacks appeared to be over, we felt that we had emerged from an ordeal, though we were still uncertain how we felt. Sometimes it seemed to us that the stranger with his angry eyes had known something about us that we ourselves did not know. Sometimes we wondered whether he was right about us, even though we did not know what it was that he was right about. More often we dismissed such thoughts and reproached ourselves for our failure to catch him, our failure to prevent him from repeatedly attacking us. At about this time an editorial appeared in the Daily Observer. Signed the editors, the article discussed the episode of the stranger and concluded by saying that it was over now and that we ought to “learn from it and move on.” The editors did not tell us what we might learn, unless it was that we needed a larger police force in our town, nor did they tell us in which direction we should think of moving. Therefore our sense of relief, when the attacks appeared to have ended, was also a sense of unrelief; our feeling of success was also a feeling of failure. Now, that is not the way things are, in our town. Here, success is success, failure failure. There is no confusion between the two. Success that is also failure is nothing at all. We don’t know how to take hold of it. And so we wonder: What have we learned from it all? We know only that something has happened in our town that can never unhappen. On a fine spring day, when all this is far behind us, we may be walking down a street, under branches of budding maples and lindens. On the porches, reflections of porch posts and tree branches show in the glass front doors, which haven’t yet been changed to screens. The thought comes: He could be standing behind that tree. Then we look more carefully at the root rippling toward the sidewalk, at the place where the bark-edge stands clear against the background of grass, street, and houses, and where, at any moment, a shoulder might emerge, an arm rise, a hand swing violently toward our face we walk along, under the budding branches, with their yellow-green flowers against the blue sky.