A Woman of Theory



by Nicholas Rombes

The knock at the door was insistent. Although she had waited with a sort of dull dread for this moment for months, it still surprised her that it was actually happening. The fist, finally, on the other side of the door.

Thug thug.     /Pause. /    Thug thug thug.

She swung her legs out of bed, slipped on her jeans and a loose shirt, walked across the room, unlocked the door, made her way back to the edge of the bed. She waited, and before long the door opened, and there they were, two of them in the shadows. The one with the cigarette coughed dryly. Then he dropped the cigarette and twisted it out with the bottom of his shoe against the unvarnished wooden floor. They both stepped in. Didn’t even bother to size the place up. There was little light. Just two small windows.

“Remember us, Sarah?” the shorter, cigarette-less one asked. His voice was nasally, like Peter Lorre. He was very, very short. His eyes were set far apart.

“Maybe,” said Sarah. She wasn’t sure if she was lying or not. Maybe she remembered them, and maybe she didn’t. If this was not the truth, it was not far from the truth.

“What she say?” asked the taller one, jutting his chin in the air Sarah’s way, but without looking directly at her.

“She said: ‘maybe,’” said the short one, speaking towards the tall one’s ear. The tall one half-snorted a laugh, and took a few more steps toward Sarah. Each man wore a long black coat, and the shorter one appeared to have some slight hunch to his back. The tall one’s face looked scarred or burned. Or both. Probably both.

“Be that as it may,” the tall one asked, “isn’t there some place you’re needed?”

“I’m not needed anywhere but here,” answered Sarah. “I refuse to come.”

“What she say?” asked the tall one.

“She said she wasn’t needed. Said: ‘I refuse to come,’” the short one replied, loudly. His hunch seemed to Sarah to expand and contract with his breathing.

Neither of them laughed this time. The tall one reached into his coat pocket, took out a red pack of cigarettes, tapped one out, put it between his lips. The hunchback lit it for him from a match produced from Sarah knew not where. Outside a jet screamed overhead, then the familiar sound of an explosion. The building shook slightly, then settled. They waited for the retort, covering their ears, except for the tall one. It came with a mighty boom, followed by the sound of crumbling walls and shattering glass and then the muted screams and soon after the wail of distant sirens.

Then silence. And then the clanking water pipes from the mis-used apartment above. And then, finally, the tall one spoke.

“The agreement, Sarah. You recall that, at least.”

“I recall it,” she said, “and it has no meaning. It’s void. It’s not enforceable. I have documents.”

Documents?” said the short one. “Well we have counter-documents.”

“Yeah, these,” said the tall one, grinning, and pulled back his coat to reveal the weirdly shaped weapon that men like him carried.

The tall one looked to the hunchback and laughed, smoke coming out his nostrils like a mythological creature. Some black lagoonish-creature shaking off the muck of history.

“Why do you think we’re here?” he asked Sarah.

“I don’t care.”

“Try again,” said the short one, stepping closer.

“To remind me of the agreement.”

“To compel, if need be. We are here to compel you.”

Sarah didn’t answer.

Finally: “Are you not a woman of your word, after all?” asked the tall one, his voice almost pleading, almost tender. For the first time he looked directly at Sarah.

“I’m a woman of theory,” she replied, meeting the tall one’s gaze.

The tall one turned to the hunchback: “A woman of  . . . what?”

“Theory. She said: ‘I’m a woman of theory.’”

The tall one considered this, finished his cigarette, let it fall to the floor, still trailing a tenuous thread of smoke.

“Good,” he finally said. “Good for you. And we are men of action.”

“I’m not interested in what you are men of,” Sarah said. “You must know yourselves why you’ve been sent. And still you came.”

“Of course. That’s why we’re here, Sarah. Because we were sent. You can’t be surprised at our presence, after what you have shown you are capable of?”

“I did not do those things to attract you.”

“And yet,” the tall one said, “here we are.” He paused. He glanced over at the hunchback. Then he said: “The poor fellow in the vice, we heard about that.”

It wasn’t a question, and yet Sarah felt obligated to respond.

“And?” she asked.

“And we heard that you lacked . . . sentimentality. When it came to things like the vice.”

“I did what was required,” she said.

“But was it required, Sarah?”

“My survival depended on it.”

The tall one cocked his head, as if in question. “What” he asked the hunchback, “was that last part? Her ‘what’ depended on it?”

“She said her ‘survival’ depended on it,” said the hunchback loudly, shifting on his feet. Sarah wondered if the hunched back was heavy, if it was a burden.

A sudden look of weariness came over the tall one’s face and he approached Sarah, who had taken a step back from them.

“So: at last. Are you ready to come with us, as you agreed?”

“The agreement isn’t enforceable. I won’t come. This guarantees I won’t,” she said, removing a small red box from beneath the bed. She held it in her hands softly. The men backed up. She didn’t need to open it.

“In that case . . .” the hunchback said.

“If that’s how you’re going to play it . . .” said the tall man.

They left quietly, leaving her apartment door open. Sarah watched as they made their way down the dirty hall, and then from her small window as they drove off in their long black car. She packed her things quickly. Not much, really. Everything she had, everything she owned, fit into a small, rollerless suitcase. She called for a taxi to pick her up around the block. She would be followed, and yet what choice did she have? She couldn’t stay here, not after they’d confronted her so boldly. Not after that.

The taxi took Sarah over the bridge that connected the northern and southern territories. She attached her blue pin to her the front of her shirt, as was required when entering the south, and settled back as the taxi took her through the desolate wastelands of broken towns and villages, and then through a long stretch of unharvested wheat fields with broken down equipment lying in rusted hulks. The driver pulled over at a remote fuel station and Sarah got out and stretched and kept an eye on the pump as he used the bathroom. Four or five black vultures wheeled against the blue sky. An attendant shifted behind the greasy glass door of the petrol station. The cab driver emerged from the restroom around back with the key attached to what looked to be a varnished wooden paint stir stick and entered the station to pay. He pushed open the glass door and shouted to Sarah, you want any water, any food? She signaled no and the door shut and a few minutes later he emerged with some small bags of chips and a bottle of water for himself.

The long black car pulled up at the next pump. Sarah hadn’t heard it or seen it coming. She tried to warn the cab driver but he was halfway to the taxi, exposed. The hunchback emerged from the black car and approached the cab driver while removing the weird, insect-like weapon from the folds of his black coat. He touched it to the driver’s stomach and the driver doubled over and a sudden gush of blood came out his mouth and nose and he collapsed. The blood kept coming out. Then the hunchback strode into the station, opening the glass door, gesturing, and the figure inside crumpled and fell, too.

“You could have done this at the apartment. You could have used force there,” Sarah said.

“We had to wait,” replied the tall one, who had emerged from the black car, “for permission. Procedures. Documentation. It seems we need to fill out a form in triplicate to wipe our asses these days. Isn’t that right, comrade?” he said, to the hunchback, who had come back out of the station, wiping his hands against his coat.

“That’s right,” he replied. And then, to Sarah. “I don’t know how it is on your side, but on ours paperwork has become the order of the day. This here,” he said, nudging the the cab driver’s deflated body, “will take a week of form-filling to clear.”

“And a week of form-filling to receive the forms for the clearance,” said the hunchback.

The sky cleared and the sun came out.

The tall one cleared his throat and said: “We’re prepared to receive the red box now. You caught us off guard before.”

“It’s not mine to give,” said Sarah.

“It not what?” the tall one asked, squinting his eyes and looking toward the hunchback.

Hers to give,” replied the hunchback. “She said it’s not hers to give.”

The tall one cocked his head and cocked his behind his ear, still questioning.

“HERS. TO. GIVE!” the hunchback repeated.

Sarah was standing with her back against the cab, as if that could stop them. Perhaps it could.

“You took it with you. We saw you. It’s in there,” the hunchback said, gesturing to the cab with the snout of his still-drawn weapon. “We’ve got permission now. We’ve got documents that permit us to take extreme measures, that allow us to . . .”

“Not that we’re inclined to do so,” interrupted the tall one.

“Of course not,” said the hunchback. “We’re not cruel men. We’re not sadists. Not like some of our colleagues.” They both smiled.

“That’s right,” the tall one said. “We’re not like Trevor.” The hunchback laughed. “Shall we contact Trevor and ask him to retrieve the red box?”

“Why ask me? I don’t know Trevor,” Sarah replied.

“Trevor?” the tall one asked. “Who’s Trevor?”

“Got me,” said the hunchback.

Sarah looked to the sky. “It appears I’ve got no choice,” she said, and stepped away from the cab.

“Now you’re seeing things our way,” the tall one said, opening the rear passenger door.

“You’ll need this,” Sarah said, handing the hunchback the little silver key to the suitcase.

“Oh no,” the hunchback said, “we’re not going to open it here.”

“Then how will you know if the red box is inside? You don’t want to go back empty-handed, do you?”

“Why suddenly so anxious for us to succeed?” the tall one asked. “If you’re so bent on us not making fools of ourselves, then open the suitcase yourself,” he said.

The hunchback tossed the key back to Sarah, who caught it in her hands. She studied them for a second and then hurled the key—as hard as she could—into the scrubby field that ran along side the petrol station. As the men watched the arc of the key Sarah turned quickly and snapped open the unlocked suitcase, removing the red box.

The tall man and the hunchback turned to her.

She unlatched the red box and opened it and some kind of fury, more swift and abstract than she could have imagined, scattered the remaining light into the far corners of the day. She always had a hard time remembering what happened next, only that she always found herself in yet another town, in another apartment, waiting for the insistent knock at the door.

About the Author:


Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.