Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling

Short Fiction

Jonah Howell




After a long struggle which left small red indentations in most of the fingers on his right hand, Abe wrenched the keyring from the pocket of his Wranglers, shook out some unidentifiable dust and stray tobacco shavings, untangled the floppy rubber dog’s ears from the ring proper, paused under a wash of guilty pride upon seeing his toddler’s gift, and embarked upon the infinitely more strenuous task of setting his one decrepit key into its lock, his second-least-favorite activity, on account of the myriad infinitesimal bends and cracks where the hexagonal butt of the key attached to the shaft—products of improvisational bottle-opening—the sight of which never failed to fray his already threadbare nerves with the possibility, projected with certainty onto some uncertain but certainly future night, that the key might break off in the lock and leave him stranded outside, when the one prospect he dreaded more than actually opening the door (his least-favorite activity, below which only inserting and turning the key seriously vied for position) was to knock on the door, something he had never done, nor did he intend to do so, for such a noisy entrance would reduce his nighttime system and therefore his whole cardstack life to an irreparable shambles, against which heart-wrenching fear he fought valiantly, tonight as every night, with tightened throat above a quick-to-smoldering heart, by inserting the crippled key micrometer by precious papier-mâché micrometer, not daring even to breathe, nor would he dare, even if his tightened throat would allow it, nor to shake, despite that daytime saw him shake incessantly, so much that he had become something of a celebrity to the photomanic tourists who frequented his street-corner, in the sense that each of them knew, whether by word of mouth or by travel blog or by instinct, that he should not be trusted to take their group photos, no matter how unoccupied or congenial he may appear, yet still by some miracle he always managed to still his quivering limbs for the five or so minutes it took to slide his key into the lock and turn it, always, though tonight he trembled in terror that his hands might tremble, that he would then be stranded, the jagged end of his key impotently jutting from its lock, or else, unthinkably, that he would be reduced to knocking, to waking his wife and son, whom he had never awoken, despite that his wife, he remembered distantly, used to awaken in the wee hours, rubbing her crusted eyes adorably, to the sound of squirrels tussling on the tree forty feet from their bedroom window, back when it was in fact their bedroom, before he, unwilling to wake her with his shakes, took to sleeping on the now-brown plaid couch in the living room, that is, before he made the crucial necessary historical shift from trying to pay back his student debt to trying to forget his student debt, that is, before he learned what he now took to be the true, no, the only possible meaning of fifteen dollars, that is, the minimum number of dollars according to the oily-bearded man behind the mall, the only such man in this area and therefore the highest holy authority on the value of fifteen dollars, on whom Abe blamed his current worries, for if, for just this one night, fifteen dollars might not be fifteen dollars but, say, eleven dollars and sixty-eight cents, Abe would have no such worries and would be able to slip into the house after only his usual superhuman effort, but such a will as that of this man behind the mall was unmovable, and so Abe, blameless victim of none but the great unmovable, raging at this man’s iron will, raging at his own rage as one more cause of his unusual shakes, twisted the key one half-second before he knew, deep down, that he should, as a result of which blameless haste the key tore, its latticework of microtears finally, inevitably joining to form one full, fatal tear, whose appearance would have caused Abe to cry out, to stamp his feet, perhaps even to sob into the door’s peeled paint, were it not for his sleeping wife and son, who would have to awaken in a short four hours for work and school respectively, a twelve-hour double shift and an eight-hour sit followed by day care respectively, in consideration of which Abe gagged down his cries and silently gnashed his teeth, assessing his likelihood of living through the winter night in only a threadbare shirt, a lined flannel hoodie, a pair of old Wranglers, and some recently found shoes, two sizes too big and covered in the thin mesh now popular among runners but not among those who intend to sleep in near-freezing weather, the last three words of which description Abe intuited and upon which he fixated, near-freezing weather, that is, a small ghost of hope, so long as he could find some compartment snug enough to conserve body heat, like the nook beneath the stairs in the back of the alleyway downtown, the alleyway with the puzzle pieces and the fading mountain painted on it, where he had slept one night before, the night he had first met his wife and had walked, no, jaunted around town until the buses fell asleep, his head spread skyward into possible impossible futures, so that then, sleeping under the stairs had felt adventurous, rapturous, almost comfortable, whereas now, curled into an aching ball, shaking and, unrelatedly, shivering, he was sure he would not sleep at all, what with the cold, the hard concrete, the smothering green stench of the nearby dumpster and, perhaps most discomforting, the floppy rubber dog, a birthday present which had cost his son not nearly so much as Abe’s broken key surely would, and which he hated to the point of bitter tears but would never, under any circumstances relinquish, regardless how hard it stabbed into his leg through his pocket.



Jonah Howell is a tattooist in North Carolina. You can find his other work in Surfaces, X-R-A-Y, and Waxing & Waning. His collection of poetry, Empathology, is forthcoming from BHN Books


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