I am a very normal-looking person. There is nothing grotesque about me. That day, like all days, I dressed myself in pants and a shirt after my extremely respectable shower, during which I used soap and shampoo to clean myself. There is nothing wrong with my teeth. They are neither yellow nor brown nor pointy. They are perfectly reasonable teeth. I floss them regularly. I groom my hair. I drink water; I eat bran cereal. I am just like anyone else. Nothing about me could be interpreted as terrifying. My eyes are not particularly bloodshot. The only thing that distinguishes me, perhaps, is how orderly I am.
I left my apartment feeling quite genial. I had effectively moved my bowels and was enjoying that clean, pure feeling. Perhaps I was smiling slightly. Mine is a mild smile. While it may not be heartwarming, it is certainly not threatening.
When the subway arrived, it was unusually crowded. There was no place to sit, so I clung to a pole. I thought of how pleasantly my bowels had evacuated themselves and understood that it was too much to expect both that pleasure and the pleasure of a seat. Beneath me sat a father and his child. The child was perhaps four years old, though I’m no judge. Gazing downward, I noted its matted, gummy hair. The child turned up to face me.
Then it let out a terrible scream. Howling, it stared at me with enormous, frantic eyes. Its father tried to do something, but the child twisted away. It desperately wanted to look at me and desperately wanted to shriek at me. I stood frozen, horrified. It was just me and that child, face to face. Finally I turned and moved away and felt awful for a very long time.
A secret: Once, while riding a train with my father as a child, I noticed a very normal-looking person standing above us. This person called to mind certain possibilities, and I could not help myself: I began to scream and scream.
Phillips’s latest collection of stories, Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, $26), is out May 31.