The Breech

by JP Kemmick

The summer has, until recently, been good, affording us many chances at recreation and continually coating our clothes in the sweet smoky smells of barbecue. But now, even as the days shimmer and shine and the summer continues to wag its happy tail, we find ourselves in the midst of an alarming discovery. It is not an issue we are unfamiliar with, per say, but something we thought we had relegated to historical texts, that would, in good time, exist only as fairy tales, possibly as ghost stories told around campfires at the end of long hikes we took into remote sections of the world we have carved out for ourselves. It is shocking to see ancient history walking down your streets, boarding your buses, sitting at your favorites cafes; it is as if Caesar Augustus joined your poker game, the red plumage from his helmet brushing the light fixture overhead, a handful of ancient and chipped coins stacked in front of him.

This calamity I speak of, this returning of a long banished, if not entirely forgotten, aspect of our past: it is women. They have returned.

The signs at the edge of our world clearly state, NO WOMEN ALLOWED. The signs are not red crayon scrawlings on thin newsprint. They are large signs, posted with great frequency in many languages all along the border of our land. They are stuck into the sand, drilled into the rock, floating on buoys on wide rivers and where our country meets the ocean. There can be no confusion about their meaning. They have, clearly, been ignored. It is impossibly frustrating. Many sleepless nights went into the debate about wording, font style and size, color. We put so much work into our signage.

Then there is, of course, the law, which states, “There shall be none of the female species, or those traits associated with them, in these lands which have been reserved solely for the purpose of man and his pursuits.” That means no women. It's the law.

I hear rumors of sightings, reports of infiltration, but I see my first woman one day on the bus. She is, as an individual, unfamiliar to me, but as she climbs onto the bus, it is clear she has the air of all women, a rigid self-possession, an essence of withheld knowledge.

She is wearing a red dress certain to inflame any bull within charging range. She grips the overhead railing as if it were an afterthought, as if her perfect balance against the bus' abrupt stops and starts was never in question. Her skin is pale, her cheeks scooped, her nose like a long, narrow ski jump. She has quantities of dark hair and it hangs half tucked into her collar, half trailing down against her red dress like a river parting a sunset.

In short, she is disgusting. The chatter of the rest of us on the bus—trading stock tips, baseball scores, world news and steak grilling advice—abruptly dies. There is a palpable imbalance, a shifting of the poles of the world we believed ourselves to live in. I get off at the next stop and walk the remainder of my way to work, which is no short distance.

There had been talk of walls before the simpler signage was adopted and such talk flares up again upon the breeching of our borders. What might the walls look like and what women-repelling material might they be constructed from? Is it too late, seeing as how the women already walk freely along our streets? And what about those things which we openly welcome into our land? The animals we hunt, the boats and trucks from other similarly aligned nations bringing us beer, meat, rifles and power tools?

In the end we agree to be more vigilant, to inspect all incoming shipments, to double check the papers of any especially effeminate looking individuals. Boats are stuck in the harbors for days longer, their sailors cursing our paranoid inefficiency. Trucks are stopped at checkpoints, their contents gone over, their boxes opened, the angry truck drivers complaining about deadlines while they lean against their doors and smoke. We double down on our trade embargoes with any nations where women are still allowed to mingle freely with men.

And yet still, every day, onto our streets and oozing into other corners of our lives, come the women, mincing along on their delicate heels, the wind catching the edges of their skirts and flaring them up to expose red ankles of a shameful nature.

One morning there comes news of a man who had been sighted at a late hour attempting to smuggle a woman into his apartment. It sends a shockwave of abhorrence throughout our domain, the thought of so much weakness, of such a purposeful abetting. It sickens us to consider the all too easy giving in to below-the-belt stirrings, of acknowledging the women's power we so long ago shook from our loins like the archaic force it is.

Years of progress and then one pitiful man ruins it all.

National morale flags. Nothing is getting done. Up until the return of the women, our distractions had been neatly categorized and easily incorporated into our lives: booze, sports, money, wilderness feats. They were all of a kind: the booze allowed us to forget our work; the sports gave us a common lunchtime language; the money was our motivator; the outdoors demanded we keep up our strength.

The women undo all of this. They are neither motivating nor fortifying. They demand our full attention. I refuse to give them even a sliver.

In the grocery store one day I see the same woman from the bus. She picks up an apple and, holding it at eye-level, considers it for any possible defects. She tilts her head slightly back and tucks a few loose strands of dark hair behind one ear. The hand she holds the apple with has fingernails painted the same color as the apple so that her hand almost seems to melt into it. Lifting her left foot she rakes it along the calf of her other leg, leaving faint white scratches. She brings the apple closer to her face—to what degree can an apple even be scrutinized?—and opens her mouth to expose her white teeth, which seem to number in the millions like the baleen of a whale, through which she could strain the intricacies of the world, through which she could let past only those things which nourish her.

I expect her to bite into the apple but she only breathes upon it and then rubs it against her violet blouse before dropping it in her basket, which dangles from her thin wrist.

I leave my shopping cart in the middle of the aisle and head toward the nearest exit. It has to stop. It must stop.

The bureaucrats, those who had decided against walls in the first place, would take years to come to any kind of decision to the immediate problem. So I decide to take the matter into my own hands. I knock on the doors of my neighbors and make my case. I use word-pairings like, “shameful disregard,” and “mindful, deliberate disrespect.” My neighbors nod furtively, agreed, agreed, agreed. They take the signs I made to post up at their workplaces, their coffee shops; they take the petitions to circulate among friends and co-workers.

But at one door I notice the hint of lipstick on a shirt collar. At another, a single pink slipper pokes out from a closet.

It is the following week when the posters go up for the benefit show, to support a sick neighbor. It goes against our code, the very grain of our society. It is sure to be a humiliation for the sick man, the implication that he is unable to take care of himself, that he needs sympathy and help.

I show up late to find the community center surprisingly packed. I assure myself it is filled with other men in my curious position, here to right a wrong, to set us back on our individual tracks, free of the suggestion of social charity.

A band takes the stage and they are loud and heavy. Their volume comforts me, comforts us all. It is as it should be, men gathered to throw their heads back, to raise fists, to howl and growl. I feel the old desire to headbutt someone or something.

But then comes the moment of a man on stage with a bucket and he asks us, looking at his shoes, mumbling, if we might pass around the bucket, to collect money for our sick “brother-in-arms.” The term comes off his tongue like a roller-coaster losing its breaks, fast and frightened.

When the bucket comes to me, full of small bills, I pass it on without a contribution. The bucket smells of pickles. The money smells of pity.

Soon after, I leave into the dark night. The moon is full and from my vantage it looks to almost sit atop the knob of a flagpole. The moon has never had to deal with forced compassion. It is what it is and it is allowed to be just that. Of course, it has the wall of all of space surrounding it.

As I walk past the alleyway behind the building I see two women there leaning up against the hall's rear door, smoking, of all things. The moonlight disappears in a bank of clouds and then the women open the door and go back inside, where, I now see, they have been all along, demanding our charity.

Then comes the Friday night poker game. The cigar smoke is thick and the shuffling of chips—sticky with chicken wing sauce—across the felt of Gary's table sounds like the soft whisperings of wealth. There are potato chips. There is dip. There is Louie talking about his baseball team's recent attainment of the regional championship.

And then, through the swinging doors from the kitchen, in walks a woman. Her blond hair is cut short like two parentheses holding her round face in place. She is slightly plump and when she blinks I can see the heavy blue eye shadow she wears. She has on jeans and a grey sweatshirt and she carries a vegetable platter: red pepper slices, broccoli and baby carrots ringing a center of ranch. She reaches over Gary's shoulder and places it on the table and then runs her hand through Gary's hair before returning to the kitchen.

“Eat your veggies, boys,” she calls over her shoulder as the door behind her swings closed. Gary, ever obedient, dips a carrot and throws it in his mouth. I look around the table at Louie, Andrew and Jake and they in turn dip and eat their veggies. That a woman has just so brazenly entered the room, has dared to utter a command, seems to not faze them. There will clearly be consequences. There will be reports to be filed, comments to the press to be made.

“What is going on here?” I ask.

“You're losing money. Lots of it,” Andrew says and the others laugh.

“Who was that woman? What are we doing, as a society, to allow the women to think they can waltz into our country, our homes, our poker games with absolute impunity, with no cause to fear even the slightest retribution. What are we—”

“Who's this 'we', Phil?” Gary says.

I look around the table at my countrymen and I spread my arms toward them.

“Us,” I say. “The whole damn country of our fellow men.”

“You need to get laid, man,” says Jacob.

At that, I stand up, gather the few measly dollars I have accumulated, and I leave. I do not need to be associating with lovers of women, no matter how many years we have gathered around the same worn felt table.

It is not a good week for me. Everywhere I look I see our defenses lowered, see men cavorting with women, sometimes even touching their shoulders or elbows in public. I see one man sitting in the park on a blanket, feeding strawberries to a woman while the ever-encouraging sun shines brightly upon them. I feel consistently nauseous. I keep my eyes lowered and am repeatedly almost run over by cars.

And then one morning on the bus, there she is again, that woman. She is wearing a white dress shirt and a pale blue skirt with black tights and flat black shoes. I watch her sway from her tip-toes to her heels in rhythm with the bus. She has cut her hair so that two long strands curve down in front of her ears and bounce around her chin. Golden earrings hang from each lobe and catch the alternating light as it finds its way through the tall buildings of downtown.

Oh how she angers me. Frustrates and confounds me. When my stop arrives, I do not get off. I watch as she stands up straight and turns to allow departing passengers past her, how her body runs through its curves. How did she arrive here? How many waves did she battle, how many desert miles did she hike to arrive in this city of men? What could she possibly want from us, save everything?

One of the strands of her dark hair swings near her perfect teeth and she bites at it and misses, like a lazy animal who knows food will come to it if it just waits a little longer. So much arrogance.

When at the next stop she gets off the bus, I follow. I walk behind her down the street and when she stops at a crosswalk to wait for the light, I reach out to tap her shoulder, to tell her what I think of her.