Beginning of Harry
THE FRANK SINATRA HOURS
In the middle of the night, or to be more accurate, in the early hours approaching morning, Harry wakes, as is his habit, in the stillness that surrounds him and stumbles out of bed, grabs his robe, slips on his fleece-lined slippers, and makes his way gingerly down the hall to his den. He sits in his reading chair but does not bother to turn on the lamp, the nightlight giving enough illumination for him to pour a shot of whiskey from the bottle that always sits close by into the shot glass always ready to receive it.
A legal size writing pad attached to a clipboard lies on a small coffee table beside the chair as well as two Cross pens, a volume of poems by Pavese, a book on the history of Southern Italy, The Twenties by Edmund Wilson, and a novel by Jose Saramago that he has not read yet. There is also Jamie’s last book of poetry that bears a dedication to him and an inscription that reads: “As always, for my father.”
He fingers the cover of the book but does not open it, knowing each and every poem by heart, knowing how the rereading of even a line will cause the loss of an hour’s needed sleep. Instead he has a second shot of whiskey and broods over the previous day’s events, and plots his course of action for the day that lies ahead.
This is what he refers to as The Frank Sinatra Hours, and though he does not play any music or wax sentimental with a silent bartender, he does reflect on his foibles, ponder his options, regret his past. There is so much to do and so little time left to do it. He is, after all, at that point in life when faced with his own mortality and though not frightened, certainly not overly enthusiastic about meeting what must surely be an empty void at the end. He wishes he had the comfort of faith, of a belief in any kind of salvation or afterlife where he might have the chance to meet those who have gone on before and those who will follow once again. But all he sees is an end to this and nothing more. Just a longer uninterrupted sleep than he can imagine and no need for whiskey, or literature, or the touch of another human being to soothe the aching of his heart.
He sits alone in the semi-darkness staring at nothing, his mind trying to come to a peace he knows he’ll never attain, and with the bottle, his trusty compatriot, within arm’s reach. And this is his tableau until the sun creeps up beyond the drawn curtains and lights the world just outside. Only then does he doze off in his chair. Only then does he find what little peace is offered to an angry man.
The phone rings, and though he would not have answered it under normal circumstances, being half wake and vulnerable, he does, and thus begins a new round of troubles. “You picked up?” the female voice on the other end of the line says. It takes him a second or two for it to register that this is his first ex-wife Cathy calling. “I must have caught you by surprise.”
“You did,” he says, “but I can always hang up and you can try again.” And though he only half means it, it’s that other half that doesn’t mean it that worries him.
“No, I’m glad I got you,” she says. “I was afraid I was going to have to call Jamie but didn’t want to do that yet. This really concerns just you and me.”
“Well,” and she takes a breath, “we have a problem.”
“It can’t be related to the divorce,” he says, “because that was settled decades ago.”
“Not the divorce,” she says, “but the marriage. Or at least the last days of it anyway.”
Harry is, in spite of himself, somewhat intrigued. Cathy is the only one of his two ex-wives that he still has any contact with, his second ex-wife, being the mother of his daughter, Jamie, deceased for twenty-seven years and a specter of what might have been that haunts him still. Cathy, however, was a college sweetheart, met when he was a teaching assistant and she a senior in college, just 5 years apart, his first real true love, and she still, at times, crops up in his thoughts at odd moments of the day or year. A snowstorm, for instance, or lightning, or the sound of rain on tin, these things, all these things recall moments when he was with her: a blizzard in Manhattan their first winter living in the city, watching lightning over a corn field in Nebraska on a camping trip across the country, or lying in bed in a trailer in the Southwest listening to the rain pelt the roof as they softly, tenderly made love.
He almost succumbs to nostalgia but kills the impulse with the taste of whiskey left over in his glass from the night before. “What problem?” he asks to ground himself.
“Well, it’s something I never shared with you and I guess this is my punishment.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember, at the end, when we broke up? Do you remember all that clearly? Alcohol hasn’t fogged your memory, has it?”
“I remember the past all too well,” Harry says. “Alcohol has been a big disappointment in that regard. No matter how much I drink, I can’t seem to lose even one picture frame.”
“This is not the way I thought I would be telling you this,” she says and sighs. “Of course, as the years went by, I resolved never to tell you, but didn’t you used to say, never say never, and always avoid always?”
“I wasn’t very original back then,” he says. “What I really meant was we live in a world where always is never possible, and never always reoccurs again.”
“Yes,” she says. “It certainly reoccurs frequently in my life.”
“But what does this have to do with a problem?”
“Well, you remember how that last night ended, don’t you?”
And, of course, he does. They had come home late that night from dinner with friends, friends he no longer quite remembers, and certainly doesn’t see, but then, back then over 35 years ago, it was an evening of shared intimacy, an evening of brutal honesty about what one felt, what one needed, and she had gotten drunk with him, they had, quite naturally, smoked some dope with their friends first, and then got woozy, and they were living on the West Side then, he commuted out to the college from the city and Cathy was teaching part-time at City College while finishing her MFA in acting, singing in clubs on hoot night, taking dancing lessons, falling in love with the performer’s life, and eventually falling in love with another performer. They were using a scene from a play Harry was writing, a play he never did finish, but at the time he did not suspect that, was quite excited by the form, it was to be a vehicle for Cathy, and she was using one of the scenes as an audition piece, used it with another aspiring actor from her program, he playing the male lead patterned after Harry himself, only making the character his own, and in doing so, made Cathy, Harry’s wife, the love of his life, his own, too. And it was that night, high on dope and then red wine, fresh from an evening with friends, from talking about their feelings, their needs, their desires, stumbling into their apartment on West 85th Street, that she said to him, “I’m in love with another man.”
And the world changed for him that night. It tilted to the side and he slid off from where he was, from where he believed he would always be, into another place, a space much different than he imagined. But somehow, in the sliding, she slid with him for a second, and they held each other, there on the floor of their apartment, on the white shag rug they had bought at Macy’s on sale, and they clung to each other, the tears flowing down both cheeks, and he somehow found her mouth, found her tongue, and made love to her there, on the floor, on that rug he took with him when he moved out to Long Island a few months later but never did unroll again, never did set it in the middle of his new living room floor, but left it tied up in the garage for over a decade before hauling it out one day to the curb in the midst of spring cleaning and leaving it for the sanitation truck to haul away.
But that night, on that rug, he made love to her for the last time, spontaneously, passionately, hungrily, dying inside as he did, knowing he could not keep her, she was already gone, and only this body and the memory of their love remained. And to that memory he gave everything he had inside him, and when he finally came inside her, there on the floor, on that white shag rug, he left the last vestige of his love behind.
“Yes,” Harry says, finally. “Yes, I remember that night.”
“Do you remember how it ended?”
“You mean with the sex?”
“Yes,” she answers. “With the sex.”
“Yes,” he says, nodding to the phone and reaching over for the bottle, another quick shot. This is one helluva way to start the day, he thinks. These memories being dredged up. This pain.
“It’s that that caused the problem,” she says. “That last night of sex.” And she pauses, waiting for him to comprehend what she is saying, to realize on his own, but Harry, being so perceptive as a writer, as a teacher, is at a loss as an ex-husband, as an old flame. “It was so passionate, without any thought of anything but that moment, and we were so high, so out of control,” she says. “And I didn’t put my diaphragm in that last time, Harry. I didn’t think or care.”
“You’re saying?” Harry says, the world beginning to tilt again. “What are you saying?”
“That it was unprotected sex, Harry. That you came inside me and that that was the night I got pregnant with my daughter. Not two weeks later, like I told everyone, but that night was the night she was conceived.”
Harry is suddenly speechless. He vaguely wonders if there’s a conspiracy afoot, if women from all parts of his life will not rise up in unison, accuse him of all the transgressions committed in their lives. Will his second ex-wife reappear next, like Banquo’s ghost, with some unmentionable deed he was guilty of? Will even Jamie join in the fray? But that thought brings him back to hard, cold reality. The crimes, if that is what they are, may be many, but Jamie would not be throwing any stones. And now, he must face this new development, this new revisionary accounting of his past. A child he barely knows, had not thought of very much these past 35 years, is suddenly seen in a new light, and he must stare into the glare and confront his past.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” Cathy says, “in this way, now. But she found out and now wants to meet you. She insists on it, actually, and so I’m calling to forewarn you to be ready for her visit.”
“Yes,” Cathy sighs. “She’s coming out there on Saturday. She’d come sooner but she teaches at a college up in Boston and can’t come down during the week.”
“This weekend?” he asks.
“Yes,” and she sighs again. “I’m sorry, really, Harry. It’s not what I intended to happen at all.” Then she explains how it happened: something about a letter written but never mailed, kept in a box long forgotten, and recently opened by her daughter, and their discussions, the threat of telling her father, Cathy’s husband, the truth, and Cathy’s compromise to tell her the story of those last days 35 years ago, of Harry, and to agree to arrange a meeting, if only to keep her husband in the dark. “I can’t let Jack know just yet,” Cathy says. “It’ll crush him. She’s our only child.”
“What does she know about me?”
“Well, up until this past weekend, not much. Just that you were my ex-husband and that you’re a college professor.” She lets out a deep breath. “Jack and I don’t really talk that much about the old days. Especially since neither one of us continued with acting. I mean, we’re very happy with our lives. I like selling homes and he enjoys giving training seminars.”
Harry nods, half listening as she goes on about their life in New Jersey, a foreign country to him. All he knows about the state is where his brother lives and how to get there twice a year—once for Christmas dinner and then again in the summer for a barbecue. The rest of the state is a mystery to him and one he gets lost in every time he tries to go anywhere other than his brother’s house. He remembers once going to Six Flags with Jamie when she was a child sometime after her mother died and he thinks that’s where monkeys climbed all over his car, but he could be wrong. Maybe that was somewhere else, if it happened at all, though it must have because it’s too real in his memory for it to be some fabricated dream. He makes a mental note to ask Jamie about it and then drifts back to Cathy as she says, “So I showed her your books and she took them with her to read.”
“My books?” he asks. “You have my books?”
“Yes,” she says. “Are you so surprised?”
“I guess a little,” he says, and then wonders about all the people who read him, and for what reasons, and how they feel about his work.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” she says somewhat guiltily, he thinks, “but I always read you.”
“I’m flattered,” he says, and then feels stupid for saying it, so he adds, “Actually, I’m grateful.”
“That you still think enough of me to read my work.”
“You know,” she says after a slight hesitation, “maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, especially now that Karen will be coming to see you, but I do think of you fondly at times.”
“Me, too,” he says, gently. “There’s still a piece of my heart you own.”
They both are quiet then, both smiling slightly, ruefully, at memories they don’t need to share. Then Cathy says, “It wasn’t perfect, but when it was good, it was the best it ever was.”
Harry feels a lump in his throat and hates himself for being so sentimental, but even in spite of that, he is moved. The heart, he thinks, is such a strange animal, so irrational. It loves regardless of what the brain says, and it loves longer than one expects, and deeper than one imagines, and it never really forgets. “Thank you,” he finally whispers. “Thank you for saying that.”
There is silence then for a long time, just their breathing that neither one of them can quite hear, and then she says, “Be gentle with Karen, Harry. She’s really a sweet girl. And though I’ve never told you this, she’s an English professor at BU. And she writes, too.”
“Ahhhh,” he goes.
“Say hello to Jamie,” Cathy says. “She’s still taking care of you, isn’t she?”
“Well, give her my regards.”
And she hangs up and Harry stares at the phone in his hand for a long time before he cradles it, turning away toward the bottle of whiskey nearby, and the glass even nearer still.
The door opens and Jamie comes in. She bends to pick up the paper, folds it, and puts it aside, takes the half empty cup of cold coffee to the kitchen sink, rinses that and the discarded whiskey glass, hears the phone ringing and looks to see Harry still dead to the world, so she picks it up and says, “Hello.”
“Jamie?” Fran asks. “Is he there?”
“Yes,” she says. “But he’s asleep.”
“Wake him,” Fran says. “I need to talk to him now.”
“Let it wait, Fran,” Jamie says and sighs. “He needs sleep more.” There is a silence as Fran debates whether to argue the point, then gives in to the stubborn young woman protecting her father on the other end of the line. “Okay,” she says finally. “But have him call me before he comes in today. It’s very, very important.”
And Jamie turns off the phone, takes a blanket from the bedroom closet and spreads it over his lap, brushes the hair from his forehead, and smiles softly at him as his eyes flicker open, registers her presence before closing again, sighs as he slips off to the troubled sleep she knows awaits him.
Jamie studies him sleeping. He almost looks peaceful since his eyes, the windows to his sad, tortured interior life, are closed, but she sees, even in his face in repose, the toll the years are taking. There is the grey in his thinning hair, in the stubble on his unshaven cheeks, his chin, the creases in his forehead, the droop of his shoulders, the weariness that seems to permeate from his pores, like the smell of whiskey mixed with tears. She suddenly feels tired herself as she looks at him and so she sits on the couch.
She thinks he will be 65 this year, in a few more months actually, and though she has never thought of him as old, lately that is all she is beginning to think. She doesn’t want him to age, for he is more than a father to her but her perpetually ageless guiding star, her mentor, her friend, but this year is aging him quickly and it is not over yet. This last decade has been hard on him, harder than even the years after her mother died when he found himself a single parent dealing with an infant daughter on his own, and watching him these last few years has not been easy on her. Which is the reason she decided to move back home, to teach at the same school, and to live in the apartment upstairs. And though she missed him while she was away doing her MFA in California, then spending two years in China with her mother's family translating poems into English, they had talked regularly, but her visits home were irregular. When she came back, though, two years ago for Christmas, she couldn't help noticing how quickly he was aging. But apart from moving back, she truly does not know how to handle that.
His eyes open then, and he stares at her for a long second before smiling a little weakly. “Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she says back.
“You been here long?”
“Ahhh,” he goes, and then he tries pushing the recliner to an upright position but he fails. So he lies there in that semi-prone position and sighs. “I don’t know where my strength is.”
Jamie doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t know what to say, or if even saying anything is appropriate. She just looks at him and he looks back at her. He smiles again. “You are here to make me breakfast?”
“If that will help,” she says. “But don’t keep expecting it.”
“I never expect anything.”
She stands then and his heart breaks looking at her. “Do you have anything in that refrigerator?”
“I’m sure there’s something,” he says. “But you would know better than I.”
“Well, I really haven’t looked in there since Friday. I wasn’t here this weekend, remember?”
“Oh, right. You were off visiting friends.”
“Yes, not doing your grocery shopping, as usual.” She sighs. “So I think I’d better go upstairs and bring something down from mine. That way I’m sure I can manage an omelet. I’ll have to take inventory later.”
“Don’t you have a class this morning, though?” he asks.
“That was at eight,” and she shakes her head. “I’m supposed to have office hours now but Fran was frantic so I came here instead.”
“Fran,” he sighs. “Frantic. A little bit of alliteration today.”
“You are planning on going in today, aren’t you?” she asks.
He nods. “I have to,” he says. “I am the chair of the department still, aren’t I?”
“Then why don’t you shave and shower while I make something,” and she starts for the door leading upstairs. “I would appreciate it, and I know the rest of the campus will, too.”
And so Harry showers, shaves, puts on a pair of black jeans, a while cotton shirt with button-down collar, a black, V-neck cotton sweater, and, apart from his fleece-lined slippers, is ready to go to campus. Instead, though, he sits down at the kitchen table for a fresh cup of coffee and a pepper and onion omelet. Jamie watches him as he eats, sipping her orange juice and nibbling at her own omelet and a piece of whole-wheat toast. He looks up at her and smiles. “This is good,” he says. “Thanks.”
She nods, says, “Just doing my part to keep you healthy.”
He leans back content after finishing the last bite of his omelet and sighs. “Did Fran say what she wants?”
“I think,” Jamie says, “it has something to do with your meeting with Adams tomorrow.”
“Ah,” and he instantly looks upward as if there might be some sort of divine protection or intervention in that direction, but, of course, there isn’t. “Does she know something I don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie says. “She didn’t say, but I think so.”
“Well, if it’s that important, she’ll call again.”
“She has been calling,” Jamie says, “and you haven’t been picking up. That’s why she asked me to come.” It’s then that she remembers she’s turned off the phone and gets up to turn it back on. “I forgot,” she says.
“A blessing in disguise,” he mutters.
“You seem to have a lot of messages,” Jamie says, looking at the caller ID. “Aren’t you even curious?”
“You listen,” he says, “and give me a summary.”
So Jamie listens to the voicemail, her eyes pulled tightly together as she concentrates, and he smiles, thinking how cute she looks like that. He remembers that look from as early back as her childhood. It's a look her mother had, too, so it is inherited and looking at her focusing like that, memories flood back of his second wife, her mother, Hui-I, and those few, precious years he had with her before he lost her too quickly to some fatal disease. A tragedy he still has a hard time reconciling. Bu there it is, that same look of focused concentration appeared on her face, those eyes pulled tightly together, her brow furrowed, her mouth turned down in a grimace, as if contemplating some bitter medicine she would have to swallow, her face telling him she was prepared for the worst. He found it endearing then, and still finds it charms him now. That look, one of the many looks that remind him of Hui-I and his heart is torn between regret and joy as he studies her as she listens to his messages.
Finally she stops and puts the phone down. “Well,” she says, “your agent Judy called a few times as well as your editor Stanley and they both want to talk to you today. Also your ex-wife, Cathy, needs to speak to you, too, about some urgent personal issue, she says, and then there was Fran, and finally Poland Spring water is scheduled to deliver tomorrow and wants to know if you want to add a pound of Starbuck’s Coffee to your order or a package of their energy drink.”
“Hmmm,” Harry says. “The energy drink is tempting but I think I prefer to feel tired this week.”
“Judy called four times, by the way.”
“Did she mention what she wants?”
“It seems they want to publish a reader of your work. And they have John Brent interested in being the guest editor of it.”
“A reader?” Harry says. “What about my latest manuscript? Did she say anything about that?”
“Just that there seems to be some problems with it.”
“Problems? What problems?”
“Neither she, nor Stanley, said anything specific, Dad,” Jamie says softly, as if to an irritable child. “They were only voicemail messages, after all. You need to call them back.”
“Problems,” he mutters. “I spend two years writing the damn thing and all they see are problems.”
“They did mention the reader,” she says. “And John Brent is very hot right now.”
“Never heard of him,” he mutters some more.
“Yes, you did,” she corrects him. “You read both of his novels and even gave a blurb for the first one.”
“I don’t remember. Besides,” and he concedes the point without truly conceding, “half the time those blurbs are just favors anyway. Who has the time to read all the things they ask you to blurb?”
“You do,” she says. “It’s a point of honor with you.”
“Well, I don’t remember,” he grumbles and looks away. “I can’t remember everything. I’m old, after all, and I don’t have that many brain cells left anymore.”
Jamie elects not to respond. She knows, after all, from a life’s worth of experience with him, that some things are best left unanswered. He’s stubborn and hates to admit when he’s wrong, but she knows he will, eventually, acknowledge it. At least he will with her, so she lets it pass for the moment, confident that she’ll be vindicated soon enough. Instead she watches him as he sits there rather forlornly nursing what is now his cold cup of coffee. “Would you like a fresh cup?’ she asks.
He looks up at her, gratitude in his eyes, and smiles. “Yes,” he says. “That will help.”
So they sit in silence, he drinks his coffee, she sips her juice, the morning, or what’s left of it, disappears and the noon hour is upon them. She studies him as he loses himself in thought, drifts off down the dark caverns in his mind. The phone rings again and they look at each other. She knows, instinctively, what to do and so picks up the receiver to find his agent Judy on the other end of the line. “Is that you, Jamie?” she asks. “Is he there?”
“Yes,” she says, “but he can’t come to the phone now. He got your messages, though, and will call soon.”
“When?” Judy asks. “You’re not stalling me for him, are you? He does understand about the reader?”
“Yes,” she says. “He’s flattered, but he’s too tied up in campus business right now. He’ll call you later today.”
“Is that a promise, Jamie? Is he really going to call?”
“Yes,” Jamie says. “I’ll make sure he does.”
And Judy goes on a bit longer, talking about the reader, about John Brent, about a lunch meeting scheduled for Wednesday, will he come, will you make sure he does, and you’ll, of course, be there yourself, won’t you, Jamie, please.
Jamie assures her she will have him there at the luncheon even if she has to tie him up and carry him there herself and the two women commiserate briefly about their shared burden: Harry. And after a few more pleasantries, mainly revolving around the menagerie Judy has at home—the two dogs, three cats, friendly squirrel, and the parakeet—they hang up.
“What did you commit me to?” Harry asks suspiciously.
“Lunch on Wednesday with all concerned.”
“I won’t go.”
“Oh yes you will,” she says, digging in her heels. “You make me do all your dirty work: the phone messages, paying your bills, balancing that disaster you call a checkbook, making sure this place is cleaned, acting as a go-between to anyone you don’t feel like personally dealing with, and then you think you can ignore the bargains I have to make on your behalf?” She folds her arms across her chest and looks him squarely in the eye. “Lunch on Wednesday. It’s definite.”
He can’t help admiring her, the way she stands her ground with him, the only one, really, he lets do that. But before he gives in completely, as he knows he must, he protests a little more. “But I don’t want to meet with all concerned parties. I don’t want a reader of my work.”
“And why not?” she asks. “They think it would help revive interest in your books.”
“That’s just it,” he says, suddenly angrier than he means to be, with her anyway. “They only do readers of people who are dead or should be. And I’m not dead yet.”
“No,” she agrees. “You’re too angry to die.”
He looks at her then, the set of her mouth, the way it is slightly turned down at the corners as if in disgust or resolution, the way her head pulls back and her eyes stand firm, all as if to say there is no changing this man, and he, being the man, wishes that were not so, or, at least, that she did not truly believe that. For he does not want to appear incorrigible, at least not to her. He would like to think she thinks him capable of change, and yet he isn’t really sure that is so. Instead he hungers for a shot of whiskey and a long embrace, but, not thinking the embrace at all conceivable, settles for the whiskey. She watches him with nonjudgmental eyes and so he has a second quick shot to chase the first down and then puts on his shoes, grabs his coat, and says, “Shall we go?”
“You want to go in with whiskey on your breath?” she asks.
“You want me to suck on a mint?”
“Dad,” she says, and then she says no more. She just closes her eyes and shakes her head, as a sort of shaman’s gesture, to ward off evil spirits. Only when she opens her eyes, he is still there blinking at her. She sighs.
“Okay,” he says and takes off his coat, sits back down at the table, pours another drink and says, “I won’t bother going in. You go in without me. Tell them I don’t feel well today.”
She watches him swallow his third shot of the day and feels utterly helpless. She would like to grab him and shake some sense into him, but knows, from experience, how useless that would be. So instead she says, “If you’re going to self-destruct like this, then let me join you.”
“Are you serious?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
They stare at each other for a long second, then Harry gets up, goes into the bathroom where she can hear him gargle with Listerine, and then comes back out again. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Forgive me for being so stupid.” He puts his coat back on and smiles a little hesitantly. “Let’s really go in this time.”
They don’t talk in the car, both having reached that state of long familiarity where dialogue is not always necessary. Instead they listen to Wilco that she has on the car CD player and get lost in their own thoughts: she thinking of the undergraduate writing techniques class she will soon be teaching and he thinking about his unexpected fatherhood. And neither paying much attention to the barren trees along the way.
Once on campus, though, his eyes seem to momentarily close before opening wide at the sight of their building. Jamie thinks she hears him sigh before getting out of the car, hunching his shoulders slightly as if from the cold and beginning the long walk across the asphalt to the back door of Hanna Hall. He would much rather approach the building from the front, walking across the Quad and relishing the view of the stately old brick building framed by rows of tall trees on each side of the Quad. But the walk is too long in winter, and, besides, the leaves have all fallen and there is nothing quite so depressing to him as a line of barren trees.
The MFA Office and faculty offices attached to the program are on the second floor and Harry climbs the stairs almost reluctantly. Jamie, following him, veers off to the right to go to her own office as he heads down the hall to his office which is connected to the program’s main office where Harry finds his assistant Fran at the front desk. He doesn’t ask where the secretary Linda is since he knows without being told she has not come in today and Fran doesn’t bother saying anything about her, either. It is as if this is the natural order of things and there is even a sense of relief on both their parts. She hands him the usual messages, including a reminder of his meeting tomorrow afternoon with the college’s Affirmative Action Officer Howard Adams and a note to call Vice President Jim DeStefano as soon as he gets in, and indicates a student sitting rather forlornly in the outer office waiting to see him.
“He doesn’t have an appointment,” Fran says, “but he seemed so despondent that I thought you wouldn’t mind seeing him anyway.”
Harry nods, says, “Give me a minute,” and hangs up his coat and scarf before going down the hall to the break room for a cup of coffee.
“You know you’re not supposed to be having so much of that so early in the day,” Fran says, nodding toward the coffee.
“Jamie says,” Fran says. “You are supposed to be cutting down.”
“What is this: a conspiracy?” he asks.
“Yes,” Fran agrees. “We’re all conspiring to watch out for your health. It’s shameful of us, I know, but unfortunately we all do care about you.”
Harry resists the temptation to roll his eyes and instead signals for the student to follow him into his office. “What can I do for you?” he asks as he sits.
The student looks nervously around, his eyes averting Harry’s, and fumbles with the notebook and the copy of Auden’s Collected Poems in his hands. He’s a tall, somewhat gawky kid, probably a freshman or sophomore, with long, dark hair, and fair, almost pure white, skin. His down jacket is unzipped revealing the usual winter attire for an undergraduate: plaid flannel shirt, faded jeans, and, Harry guesses, though he can’t see them, work boots. “I don’t know where to begin,” he mutters.
“Well, why don’t you sit down,” Harry says, “and begin at the beginning. But would you like a cup of coffee first?”
The boy almost smiles then, but it’s much too hesitant to be a real smile, just a nervous reaction, really, and he says, “Yes,” and then quickly changes his mind. “No,” he adds. Then he sits awkwardly in the chair, poised on the edge as if to jump at a moment’s notice.
“You sure?” Harry says. “It’s pretty good, especially if you like it strong.”
“Well,” and he hesitates again, “if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.” Harry gets up and starts to leave. “How do you like it? Milk? Sugar?”
“Yes,” the boy says. “Both.”
“Lots of sugar or a little?”
“Three teaspoons,” he says.
Harry nods and as he passes Fran, she looks at him as if to say, see, I told you so. He nods at her reassuringly and gets the coffee.
Once back, sipping his coffee as he watches this freshman named David sip his, Harry tries to let his mind go blank as he listens to this kid try to tell him in his haltering fashion just what is troubling him so. “I want to be a writer,” David says finally, and then adds, “At least I think I do.” And then he looks up with those earnest, soulful eyes so common to sensitive youth and says, “Everyone says I should talk to you.”
“Ahhh,” Harry goes. “You’re here for my advice?”
“Yes,” David says. “I want to know if you think I should be a writer. If I have any talent.”
“Well,” Harry says, slipping into his best fatherly tone, “I can’t tell you whether to be a writer or not. That’s something that must come from inside you.” David looks almost pained to hear that, knowing now there is no magic wand that is going to make up his mind for him. “But,” Harry says, “I can tell you if I think you have talent. And, if so, I can offer some advice as to where to go from there.”
“That’s what I need,” David says. “I need some guidance. I just don’t know what to do now.”
Harry nods sympathetically, though he’s heard this so many times before. Each semester, some kid comes in just like David, lost and confused as to whether the writer’s life is for him or her, whether they have any ability, whether they should listen to their heart or their parents or whoever reads their love poems or stories about their childhood or first sexual experience or not making the football team or falling in love with their best friend’s boyfriend. And each semester he endures these talks, their shy, questioning eyes as they confess their doubts, their fears, their hesitations. And he reads their work, along with all the applications submitted each year to both the BFA and MFA Programs for Creative Writing he’s in charge of, and counsels them as best he can. He has empathy for these kids, cares about them, and though there are times he wishes he had more time for his own writing, he always makes time for theirs.
“Do you have anything I could read?” Harry asks.
“I have some poems,” David says. “And a story.”
“You have them with you?”
“Yeah,” he says, a little embarrassed at being so prepared, so presumptuous as to think he would be asked.
“Let’s see what you have,” Harry says and extends his hand across the desk.
David fumbles with his notebook and removes a folder containing his work. Harry briefly skims the contents—several poems typed, a five page story, double-spaced, and what looks like a short character sketch. He looks up at David and smiles. “Anything else?”
“Well, I have some other stories, too, back at the dorm and more poems in my notebook. And my journal,” he says. “I also have my journal.”
“Why don’t you bring a few more stories here and some more poetry, too? Say three stories altogether and about 20 or so poems, okay? Bring it back here today, if you can, and give it to Fran outside in an envelope with your name on it. And then we’ll meet back here together on Thursday afternoon to discuss it.” Harry smiles again and hands the folder back to David. “How’s that sound?”
“Thursday?” David asks. “You mean this Thursday?”
“Yes,” Harry says, still smiling. “Is that good for you?”
“Yes,” he says, excited and smiling and almost spilling his coffee. “That’d be great.”
“Okay then,” Harry says. “See you Thursday afternoon.” He stands to signal the conference is over. “Let Fran know outside when you can come so she puts it on my calendar and remember, bring your writing back today in an envelope.”
“Sure,” he says, fumbling with his coat, his notebook, the folder, the book of Auden’s verse. “Thanks, Professor. Thanks so much.”
And he’s gone and Harry settles back down to finish his coffee and look at his messages and the campus mail. Most of the mail he discards without opening it and the messages he puts aside and leans back in his swivel chair and sighs. Fran comes in and writes down the appointment with David for Thursday at 2pm. “So,” Harry says to her, “what’s Linda’s excuse today? Her back, a stomach virus, her cats are sick? It can’t be the weather because it isn’t snowing or raining, unless it’s too cold to go outside.”
“She didn’t say,” Fran says. “Just that it’s for personal reasons.”
“Ahhhh,” Harry goes. “A personal day.”
“And besides, Harry,” Fran says, smirking slightly, “it’s a Monday. You know how she likes to take off at least two Mondays a month. It’s makes for a nice weekend.”
Harry sighs and silently thanks the Lord, or whoever is listening, that they have their part-timer Maria for the afternoon. “You can handle the rest of the afternoon out there?”
“Sure,” she says. “And Harry, don’t forget to call the VP. He keeps calling to see if you’re in yet.”
“I’m in,” Harry sighs. “Where else would I be on a Monday?”
“Then call him,” Fran says. “He’s called three or four times already.”
Harry sits at his desk and stares at the phone. He knows he must call the Vice President but somehow, for some unknown reason linked to an unknown trepidation, he doesn’t. Instead he gets up and walks down the hall to Rob’s office hoping to find his friend and colleague in. And he is.
“Hey,” Rob says, “how are you?”
Harry shrugs and slumps down somewhat heavily into the chair opposite his desk. “Okay,” he says.
Rob observes him closely, his eyes filled with tenderness and concern for his friend. “Well, if that’s so,” he says, “looks can certainly be deceiving.”
“I’ve been better,” Harry admits.
“Well, rally your resources, old boy, because it looks like they’re planning another assault on your fortress.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing concrete,” Rob says, “but vague rumors are circulating. There’s some mischief afoot, I’m afraid.”
“There’s always some mischief afoot,” Harry sighs. “The world of academia is rife with intrigue.”
“Of course it is, my chair,” Rob says, his right eyebrow arches slightly as if he were a character in an Oscar Wilde play. “How else would these petty little people occupy all the time on their hands when not doing the little bit of teaching they are required, by contract, to do. These absurd battles fought by all are only fought as savagely and intensely as they are because there is, after all, so little at stake.”
“Well,” Harry says, his face glumly set, “I’ve survived them all and I’ll survive this, too. Whatever it is.”
“Yes,” Rob says. “I have faith in you. But be alert. Ryan seems to be stirring up some trouble and he’s got them whispering about something.”
“Ryan,” Harry sneers. “He’s never forgiven me for starting this program 30 years ago and not including him.”
“He’s a bitter man.”
“But an unimportant one. Just another disgruntled English department professor. Granted, a troublemaker,” Harry says, “but one without any real power.”
“But if he could get English all worked up?”
“It’s been tried before,” Harry says. “But as long as George is chair, I have an unshakeable ally.”
“All I know is what I hear whisperings of. And Ryan’s name is on the wind.”
Harry dismisses the name, the man, with a wave of the hand, a grunt, and changes the direction of the conversation to Rob’s newest project.
“A history of the whaling industry on Long Island,” Rob says. “I guess I wouldn’t find it so fascinating if I didn’t live in an old whaling village like Sag Harbor but perhaps it’s fortuitous that I do. Anyway, my working title is In Melville’s Footsteps, though, that could change.”
“I like it, though,” Harry says.
“Me, too, actually, though I’m not particularly a fan of Melville’s work. But it has a nice ring, don’t you think?”
And Rob waxes forth about the topic, the old whaling villages, the uses of whale oil, the economy of 18th Century Long Island, and both he and Harry are transported beyond college and its petty wars to another time, another place, and Harry can almost forget his present woes. And it’s then that Jamie finds him, swept up in Rob’s enthusiasm, to bring him back to the 21st Century with lunch.
“It’s just a turkey sandwich,” she says. “It won’t kill you.”
“But I’m not hungry,” he protests.
“C’mon now. You have to eat.”
“Yes, that’s right, my chair,” Rob joins in. “Must keep up our strength.”
“What about you?” Harry says. “Mustn’t you eat then, too?”
“He will,” Jamie says. “I brought one for him, too.”
“A turkey sandwich for me?” Rob asks, glee dripping from his chin. “With lettuce and tomato and mayo?”
“Of course,” Jamie says. “And a side order of French fries.”
“Oh, I think I hear heaven calling.”
“The surest way to your heart is definitely through your stomach,” Harry says.
“Yours, too,” Rob says. “Only with me, it’s food. With you, it’s purely liquid.”
“Not as long as I’m around,” Jamie says. “I’m here to make sure he gets his nourishment.”
“You’d think she was my mother,” Harry sighs, "instead of my daughter."
“Someone has to be,” Jamie says. “Besides, grandma made me promise before she died to take the role on.”
“With a turkey sandwich?”
“For lunch anyway. I have grander plans for dinner.”
“How does whale steak sound?” Rob asks, a gleam in his eye. “I’ve never had it but I understand it’s supposed to be quite yummy. And you’re half Chinese, Jamie. Don’t all Chinese love whale?”
“Ahhh, you Westerners have such delusions about the Orient,” she sighs. “Besides, it’s the Japanese who love whale meat, but I’m betting you know that already and are just trying to tease me.”
“So clever,” Rob grins. “No fooling you.”
And so the two men eat their turkey sandwiches and finish their French fries under the watchful eye of their self-appointed guardian who only allows the beverage of choice to be club soda.
“She’s trying to reform me,” Harry says to Rob.
“That’s a hopeless cause.” Jamie says. “I’m just trying to maintain you.”
It’s at that point Paul wanders by to say hello, not so much to Harry or Rob but to Jamie. “You ready for Friday?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, “though I still haven’t decided on what to read yet.”
“Not poems from your new book?” Rob asks.
“Well some of those,” she says, “but I want to read other things, too. The new book somehow seems old to me at this point since most of it was written two to three years ago.”
“But new to your public,” Harry says. “And you must be mindful of your public.”
“Or else,” Rob cautions, “they will not be mindful of you.”
“Don’t listen to these prose writers,” Paul says. “Their sense of time is different than ours. It takes them years to finish one long piece while we fill volumes in that same time period.”
“Ah, the age old war between poetry and prose,” Rob sighs. “Will we never agree?”
“I’m not at war,” Jamie says. “Often, I can’t tell the difference between the two in my own writing. Is this prose, I wonder, or poetry? Or some hybrid form?”
“The young have no need of the old boundaries, the old definitions,” Harry says. “And therein lies their strength.”
And as the discussion continues: poetry, prose, the differences, the similarities, where one was, where one has been, where one is going. And time, happily, flows along, carrying Harry with it, keeping him afloat in a world he is quite accustomed to, among people he loves and respects, a man securely in his element. And it is then, at his most secure, that Fran comes in with a message.
“The VP is on the phone and he insists on speaking with you.”
The others look at him concerned, all knowing of the whispers on the wind, and thus his world is once again tilted and he slides off to answer the phone, but not before making eye contact with each of these friends of his and lingering the longest in Jamie’s gaze. A heart emboldened as well as broken.
“Harry,” Jim DeStefano says, “this is important. Is your door closed?”
“No,” Harry says. “Should it be?”
“Yes,” he says. “And then sit down.”
Harry puts the phone down and stares at his open door for about 30 seconds, then picks it back up. “Okay,” he says. “I’m ready, Jim.”
“This meeting with Adams,” the VP says, “is very important. I don’t want you to go in there with an attitude and fuck it up.”
“Fuck what up?”
“What he tells you.”
“And what is he going to tell me?”
“I can’t say,” the VP says. “But it’s important you go and not fuck around.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“When aren’t you in trouble? A semester doesn’t go by without someone somewhere on campus complaining about something you did. Of all the chairs I have, you cause me more grief than anyone else.”
“And how am I causing you grief now?”
“Harry,” and the VP sighs, “I can’t say. Just be sure to go see Adams and not fuck around with attitude. Then come see me as soon as you’re done. Let’s say at four, okay?”
“And you won’t tell me more now?”
“I can’t, Harry. We’ll talk later.”
And so Harry is left with nothing but frustration after he hangs up and only Jamie coming into his office afterwards gives him anything resembling relief.
“Are you okay?” she asks
“I don’t know yet,” he says. “But it looks like there must be some trouble waiting for me in Adam’s office.”
“But he’s the Affirmative Action Officer. You shouldn’t have any trouble there.”
“He also handles sexual harassment,” Harry says.
“Have you harassed anyone other than me?” she asks, smiling.
“Have I harassed you?” he asks, suddenly more serious than he intended.
“I’m joking, Dad,” she says. “Don’t lose your sense of humor. You’ll need it today, I think.”
“Hmmmm.” And he sits down and rubs his eyes. “What a way to start the week.”
“When is your meeting with Adams?”
“At two tomorrow,” and he sighs. “Then I’m supposed to go see DeStefano afterwards at four.”
“And you teach tomorrow night,” she says. “Do you want me to cover for you?”
“No,” he says. “I keep that separate.”
They look at each for a long moment, as only two people who have a long history together can, before she says, “You’ll have time to go home for dinner, if you want. I can cook something for you.”
“I’d like that, but I’ll get something in the cafeteria.”
“I can wait till you’re finished with DeStefano and drive you home.”
“No, you’re done early tomorrow, aren’t you?” She nods. “So go home and I’ll get Rob to drop me off after class.”
“I can wait,” she says. “I don’t mind waiting.”
“I know,” he says, gently, suddenly grateful for her offer, her presence, here, now. “But it’s really okay. Besides, I need the time to go over the new applicants for the fall.”
“Positive,” he says, and their eyes hold each other again for longer than either one of them intends. “I’ll be okay.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“Then I’ll see you later after my last class.”
And he’s left then with a pile of graduate school applications to the MFA Program to peruse. And that not only takes up the next few hours but it keeps his mind focused and clear.
Jamie comes by for him after her last class to take him home. “What do you think about getting a dog?” she asks in the car.
“Yes,” she says. “Do you think it would be a good idea?”
Harry blinks. He has heard a few good ideas today, though none involving animals, and quite a few bad ideas, but pets never seemed to come up in any of the conversations, and, coming now, it almost seems absurd. “You’re asking me what I think about you getting a dog, or about me getting a dog, or about us getting a dog?”
“About us,” she says and looks at him quickly before averting her eyes back to the road. “For the house,” she says, “unless, of course, you don’t want one. Then I could just keep him upstairs with me.”
“But, if I agree,” Harry says, “he’ll stay downstairs with me?”
“No,” she says. “I was sort of thinking he’d have the run of the house. Be up and downstairs.”
“A dog,” he says, letting the idea sink in, seeing a German Shepard, maybe, or a collie romping around in the backyard, chasing a stick he might throw, keeping the yard free of squirrels, barking at the mailman, curling up in the living room asleep in front of the fireplace, rolling over on his back and letting Jamie rub his chest, stroke the fur on his neck, be content, with Jamie looking up at him, smiling. A dog in the house. Their dog.
“Remember the dog we got grandma?” she asks. “How happy he made her.”
“Yes,” Harry says. “She liked that dog.”
“Even you liked him,” she says, smiling at the memory. “You’d complain about walking him, of course, but you liked him just the same.”
“Complaining is a New Yorker’s birthright. We complain about everything, whether we like it or not.”
“Remember bathing him?” Jamie asks, and laughs. “I can still see you chasing him around the backyard with the hose.”
Harry smiles at the memory himself and then looks over at her as he says, “Yes, that was pretty funny. My mother got a kick out of watching that, too.”
“And we have the yard, Dad. You wouldn’t have to walk him. We could just let him out in the morning and at night because the yard is fenced in.”
“And I could play with him back there, too.”
“Yes, we could. Though,” and another quick look at him to see if he’s taking this seriously, she hopes, and not humoring her, “it would be good to walk him each day. Not just for him, but you should walk more. It’s good for the heart.”
“Are you saying I should exercise more?”
“Well, not that you’re in bad shape, Dad. You’re not. You’re not fat and I feed you well, so I know you’re eating right, but you should exercise more now that you’re getting older.” And another quick look. “But you know that, of course, don’t you, Dad?”
He nods, thinking this is more than just about the dog, but about his life, the way he lives. She is still domesticating him. A process that’s been going on for quite some time. And though, he thinks, he should resist somehow, just out of some skewed sense of pride, he doesn’t. “What should I be doing?” he asks.
“Well, I was thinking we could get one of those stationary bikes. For the cold weather,” she says. “And maybe when it gets warmer, we could get real bikes and go biking with the dog.”
“Around the neighborhood?”
“Well, yes, but also up to the park. It’s not that far away.”
“A couple of miles?”
“Four,” she says. “I checked.”
“Ahhh,” he goes. “You put some thought into all this.”
“Yes,” she says, and another quick look. “What do you think?” she asks. “You like the idea?”
“Okay,” he says and sighs. “You can stop now. You’re convincing me.”
“Really.” He nods again and looks out the window absently, not really here in the car, but elsewhere, at a world he sees happening, almost like a vision, in front of him, years, maybe only months away. “It’s a plan,” he says. “A dog.”
And she goes on then, encouraged by his agreement, about the kind of bikes they should get, the kind of dog she likes, what Judy, who seems to know all about this idea and pets and even has a dog or two in mind as possibilities for them, says, about some changes in the yard, mainly fencing off her vegetable garden so the dog won’t trample it, about the spring coming, the summer to follow. About changes, small changes, in the way they do things, about the coming year, and then eventually about something even more immediate: about dinner.
She makes salmon, broiled with some rosemary and lemon, wild rice, and sautéed asparagus. They sit at the kitchen table, rarely using the dining room because Jamie prefers the light in the kitchen, the oblong oak table large enough for four but very comfortable for just the two of them, with the window facing the backyard where one day, he imagines, they will watch their dog romp. He has opened a bottle of red wine, a pinot noir from an Oregon vineyard, and they sip and nibble at the food, neither speaking but somehow conveying all that needs to be said. They are here, the world is out there, peace reigns.
Later, when they are drinking tea, the front door bell rings and it is Rob, a fruit pie in hand, come to call. “I timed it perfectly,” he says, as he hands the pie to Jamie. “Just in time for dessert.”
“Do you want some dinner?” Jamie asks.
“No,” he says. “Just tea and a piece of this lovely pie.” And he looks at Jamie with a mock serious expression on his face as he says, “And Jamie, I understand you have some exquisite green tea you brought back from China on your last trip there.”
“Yes,” she says. “It’s mountain grown.”
“I would love some,” he says. “I understand it is very healthy for you.”
“Yes, it is,” Jamie says.
“I try to drink it every night,” Rob says. “It relaxes me.”
“I wish everyone felt that way,” Jamie says and they both look over at Harry who chooses to ignore them.
“What a mellow world it would be if they did,” Rob adds.
“If you two are trying to say something to me, I wish you’d just come right out and say it instead of speaking in what could only be referred to as metaphoric language.”
“We are writers, after all,” Rob says, “and metaphors are our business. Therefore, we constantly speak in them.”
“And when we don’t,” Jamie adds, “we say things like drink less alcohol and more green tea to the ones we care about.”
“Namely you,” Rob says.
“I am drinking tea,” Harry counters.
“But for how long?” Rob asks. “And to what will you go to afterwards?”
“We worry about you,” Jamie says. “You’re under a lot of stress and we’d like to see you stay calm.”
“You think I may lose my temper?”
“With you,” she sighs, “there’s always that possibility.”
Harry doesn’t know what to say when Jamie sighs like that. It always stops him cold. He would really like to be a better man for her but somehow, some way, he is not able to. He always falls short of not only her expectations, but his own.
“Ah, but why dwell on imperfection,” Rob says, saving the day, or, to be more accurate, the evening. “Instead let’s marvel at this marvelous fruit pie.”
And Jamie slices the pie, serves the tea, and the conversation veers off in another direction: books. And the subject of his meeting on Wednesday surfaces.
“A reader?” Rob asks. “You didn’t mention anything about a reader to me.”
“Well, I’m not too thrilled with the idea,” Harry says. “I’d rather they were publishing my new novel.”
“And what happened with that?”
“I don’t know,” Harry says, disgust dripping off his chin. “Something about problems, but what problems I don’t know.”
“Did you ask?”
“I haven’t talked with Judy yet,” he admits. “But both she and Stan will be there so maybe I’ll find out. It’s the only reason I’m going.”
“You’re not interested in the reader?”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Jamie says, finally joining the conversation. “It will revive interest in your work with a newer, younger audience.”
“How’s that?” Harry asks.
“Because John Brent will be the co-editor and he is very hot now. It’s bound to help garnet you attention.”
“This is all because my last two books didn’t do well,” Harry says and sighs. “Actually they did abysmally.”
“They weren’t appreciated,” Rob says.
“Yes,” Jamie agrees. “They were too experimental. The last novel especially, with the second person narration, was too difficult to sustain.”
“An interesting concept, though,” Rob says. “The narrator as camera. But it probably would have worked better as a short story. Or a film.”
“Is this supposed to encourage me to do the reader?” Harry asks. “Because if it is, it isn’t working.”
Rob and Jamie both ignore him and turn to each other instead. “John Brent?” Rob asks. “Is he the one who got a Hollywood contract for his first novel?”
“Yes,” Jamie says. “Only Sony Pictures has optioned both of his novels.”
“Ah, you novelists. You always have that carrot dangling in front of you. No one ever wants to option what I write about.”
“Or mine, either,” Jamie says. “Books of poetry just don’t film well.”
“They have no imagination,” Rob says. “There are dozens of stories in your poems. They just must be able to see the subtext.”
“And speaking of my poetry,” she says, ”I really must go upstairs and continue preparing for my reading. I won’t be able to do anything tomorrow or Wednesday and I don’t want to wait until Thursday to start making the selections for Friday.” And she leaves the two friends to more pie and tea and conversation.
“You know,” Rob says, “she reminds me more and more of Hui-I as she gets older.”
“Let’s not go there,” Harry says.
“But it’s true,” he says again. “It's not just the way she looks, but the way she deals with you.”
Harry looks away from his friend, the cup of tea, the kitchen table, toward the dining room which contains the liquor cabinet to which he goes to pour himself a healthy glass full of whiskey. “Can I offer you one?”
“Okay,” Rob says, “but only about half of what you’re drinking.”
Harry pours him half a glassful of whiskey and they move into the living room and sit facing the fireplace. They don’t talk for a while, both content to just stare at the wood stacked on the grate, lost in their own thoughts. Finally Harry turns to him and asks, “You want me to light it?”
“It’s up to you,” Rob says. “I’m good either way.”
Harry intends to, thinks it would be cathartic to watch it burn, an act of purification that might come in handy right about now, but he lacks the will to stand, to cross the living room floor, to strike a match. He tries willing it to burn but that doesn’t work, either, and so he just loses interest and stares at the drink in his hand before swallowing half of it.
“Have you figured out what this Ryan business is all about?” Rob finally asks.
Harry shakes his head and stares at the whiskey some more. It is so easy, he thinks, to drink this. Such a simple gesture, to raise the hand, open the mouth, tilt the glass, let it roll down his throat. Such an effortless act requiring absolutely no special skills. Anyone could do it. Even him.
“I think," Rob continues, "it’s connected to the Adams meeting.”
Harry looks over at Rob, his eyes almost wet, the strain of discipline taking its toll. He inhales suddenly, a deep breath, filling his lungs as if to ward off evil spirits, a shaman’s trick only there is no shaman present. Only two men in their sixties with heavy hearts and no shelter in sight. “I don't know,” he says, “but it does seem to be a tad too coincidental.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Harry looks away again, back to the fireplace that is not lit, to wood waiting to burn, poised for destruction in a blaze. Harry nods, weary already of this talk, of the maneuvering it will take to contain this, whatever it is, long enough to resolve it before too much damage, for there always is damage, is done to too many people. "I think it may be related to our last argument."
"Which one was that?"
"It was last week sometime. In the office." He sighs remembering it in bits and pieces, some words, raised voices, a fist clenched in the air. "I may have threatened him."
"You know, with physical abuse probably." He sighs again. "I was mad about something."
"How come I don't remember this?" Rob says after a moment's pause.
"You weren't there," Harry says. "No one was. Just Linda. It was like late afternoon and I'd just come back from lunch and he was there baiting me. So I kind of threatened him."
Rob looks at him for a long second, concerned for his friend, concerned for whatever harmony is about to be broken. “If there’s anything I can do…” and his voice trails off, feeling ineffectual in the face of the storm brewing.
“Thanks,” Harry says, nodding, feeling like some dopey kid’s toy with a silly expression painted on his face and a spring for a neck on a cheap plaster body. There isn’t anything to say after that and they both sit in silence. Rob had not come expecting to help, except in the only way he knows how: to be there in support, to stand silently by his friend’s side in a moment of crisis and to help buffer whatever blows are to follow. This is, he reasons, what friendship boils down to. And though he rarely drinks whiskey at night, he stays in the chair for another hour or two and sips some more while he keeps vigil with his friend who he knows will not sleep this night, or any of the nights to come until this is over, if it is ever over, and done.
Later, after typing the day’s writing on his computer, he checks his email to find a message from Cathy. “Call me tomorrow morning. I need to speak to you again before you meet Karen on Saturday.”
He stares at the message for a long time before signing off and then sits staring at the blank monitor screen. Another complication in his day, as if there weren’t enough already.
He moves out to the living room and sits in his favorite chair, the recliner, his feet propped up, a drink in his hand, the morning only a few hours away. He stares up at the ceiling, knowing full well that it is Jamie’s floor and she is up there somewhere above him, asleep in her bed, dreaming, he wonders, about what. If only he could see her now, he thinks, see the expression on her smooth face, that soft, wrinkle free skin, her eyes closed, her breathing steady, her hair fanned out against her pillow. If only, he thinks. And he can't help but think of Hui-I, and suddenly his heart feels too heavy for his chest. And then he sips his whiskey and wishes, futilely, for sleep.
Night & Day
of Other Books
of Forthcoming Books