Victor Walker is a former university professor and a full-time writer. His short stories have appeared in New Black Voices, The Wisconsin Review, The Long Story, The MacGuffin, The Red Rock Review and other literary publications. A Chicagoan, he is presently living in Easton, Pennsylvania.
The Trouble with Harry
I’ve taken to looking over at her much more than I ever did—even when we had just started going together. Then I seemed to look at her all the time—her hair, her eyes, her nose, her mouth, the way she moved or sat still. I couldn’t stop looking at her, even when she wasn’t there. I would think about her. All the time. This sounds obsessive, but it really wasn’t. It never got in the way of my work. I never stopped eating. Or lost any sleep. I never spied on her or called her up just to check on where she was. What she was doing. I was never jealous of her friends or the men she knew before me. I never asked her to tell me about her old boyfriends or imagined any to compare myself unfavorably to. Everything was always in the now. My past, her past, didn’t really matter. It was as if we were invented just to be with each other.
There is a painting by Marc Chagall of a man and woman, a married couple, and instead of them holding one another or just standing side by side, the one is floating up over the other’s head, but attached like a cartoon thought-balloon. That’s what it’s like, how she is with me.
But lately, I also find myself looking at her and noticing things I had not noticed before. The way the light filters through the folds of her ears or how her knees don’t exactly match.
Sometimes I watch her sleeping. Nothing untoward. I don’t pretend to sleep only to open one eye and spy on her while she’s asleep. However, sometimes after I have gotten up in the middle of the night to pee or when I’ve gone into the baby’s room and then come back to bed and my eyes have adjusted to the dark, I will just lie beside her for a while watching her sleep. I don’t think she has ever actually watched me sleep in that way, although she has said I snore.
You might be surprised when I tell you that I don’t think she’s pretty. Not in a conventional way.
Nina (I’ll call her Nina for the sake of privacy.) is smaller on the top than on the bottom, that is to say, her breasts are modest while her thighs and hips and buttocks are substantial, and she is self-conscious about that. I sometimes notice her stealing glances at herself in store windows when we are out walking.
She’s a very bright woman, but she’s insecure. I’m sure that’s part of what attracted me to her. As well as her intelligence. I have read that it is the flicker of a flame as much as the light itself that draws the moth.
Sometimes when we’re out, she’ll stop in front of a clothing shop and gaze at a dress in the window, and I’ll pause and look, too, and though she’s ostensibly looking at the dress, I also know she’s unconsciously comparing herself to the figure in the window as well. In some ways, I’ve always thought that the mannequins (elevated as they are in their dioramas) were like statues of figures in Greek mythology, the ones just below the gods, looking past the passersby, their gazes aimed into the distance. Oblivious of us, our mortal coil. There is something eternal about them, and I think it is their self-possession, not their 6-foot statures or their size 4 figures, that Nina longs to possess.
“They could use better glass,” she says.
“Better glass?” I say.
“Glass that doesn’t reflect so much.”
She waits for me to catch up. She is patient with me. We have talked of trying to have a child again.
“A better quality would cut down on the street reflection.”
I look at Nina’s pear-shaped figure in the glass, at my bean-pole one.
“What exactly do you see?”
“I see the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“I’m serious. Look at me. What do you see, really? Who do you see?”
I am determined not to be bullied.
“I see you, and to me you’re beautiful.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t want to hurt you. But I don’t want to be beautiful just for you.”
I don’t know exactly what to say. How to respond. It's as if I had just proposed only to be turned down. We were, in fact, not married, although many times I had asked her to marry me in the heat of lovemaking (when it did not count, of course), and she had said yes (which, of course, did not count either).
“I just once want to see who I really am on the inside on the outside looking back at me. And smiling.”
“That’s who I see,” I say.
“And I love you for that.”
Reflected in the window, I imagine her taking my hand.
“But it’s not enough to see me through your eyes. Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.”
I feel her squeeze my hand as if it were a phantom limb.
“I need to see me through my own eyes—and I don’t.”
Maybe this is what has precipitated my looking at her more, as if I could sneak up on her and catch a glimpse of who she really is and nobody has seen—even her—that has yet to come out.
At times I feel like a cat waiting for a mouse to peek out of its hole. And pounce on it.
Sometimes I think about the baby we almost had.
The other day, I was sitting in the park. It was a nice day, and it was lunchtime, and I had taken my lunch to the park with me and sat down on a bench.
I had put my lunch on the bench beside me and was just content to sit and watch the sky and the other people in the park. I don’t often take my lunch to the park. The park is a fifteen minute walk from work, but the other day I felt like walking and before I realized it, I was across the street from the park, so it just seemed like a good place to stop and have my lunch. I wasn’t the only one to have had such an idea. The park was active with people, but in a relaxed way, not the purposeful way people belly-up to the lunch counters and crowd the outdoor tables along the streets that box the park.
I had gone just far enough that it was like being in another world, one where I could catch only a glimpse of a few tall buildings that rose above the treetops like the towers of distant castles. That there was a horse path that smelled of manure rather than bus fumes, that the walkways wound rather than crisscrossed, and that the grass rolled rather than flattened out in a city as flat as a bathmat was so relaxing that I did not begin to eat right away but rather sat on the park bench as a boy might sit on a dock watching boats go in and out of a harbor.
A squirrel climbed onto the lip of a trash receptacle perhaps ten yards from me, hesitated, then plunged in. I opened up my bag lunch, took out a sandwich, and listened to him rustling about. Nina, who was always watching her weight, always took care to prepare me cold chicken or turkey sandwiches seasoned with salt and pepper, or leftover salmon dressed with lemon juice but no mayo, and topped with a tomato slice and leaf of lettuce. For crunch, there were usually carrot and celery sticks, sometimes snow peas. Leftovers from take-out. Occasionally there would be a radish included. Like a rose.
Nina had the carrots, celery, and snow peas, too, but substituted yogurt for the sandwich. She never lost any weight; still she continued with the lunches.
“I want to be healthy when we try again,” she said.
I tried to adopt this attitude myself. After all, wasn’t what I put in my body equally as important?
“Of course,” she said, “You have to supply the protein.”
However I sometimes found myself bagging my lunches for a hot dog from a local stand and a bag of potato chips and soda. Unfortunately whenever I did this, I would come home after work feeling as if I had cheated on her and, in a strange way, on the baby we didn’t have as well.
I took the radish out of the bag and tossed it in the basket. The squirrel scampered out of the trash (sans radish), jumped down to the ground, and stood for a second on his hind legs, his forepaws pointed back toward his chest in that Who, me? posture city squirrels seem to hold the copyright on, and looked at me before bounding away.
Maybe he thought I was trying to hurt him. Maybe radishes are too peppery for his taste. Maybe he was just being a squirrel.
I took out the rest of my lunch and spread the paper bag on my lap like a napkin and began eating, unaware whether my sandwich was chicken or turkey or salmon, chewing and swallowing out of habit rather than hunger.
I watched several pigeons, the same color as the footpath. They had taken on the same sooty coloration as the city, without any of the protective benefits such camouflage would have served them in the wild. Instead, it had made them objects of either scorn or indifference, feathered panhandlers pecking at bits of gum and scraps of god-knows-what among the candy wrappers and butts of cigarettes. Even in a park, they seemed inured to nature, preferring the pitted cinder walkways to the grass, the beneath-the-bench-seats shadows to the sun.
They took even the pretense of my appetite away, and I tucked Nina’s sandwich back into the bag and set it beside me on the bench. If I had been a smoker, I would have smoked a cigarette, or if I had been younger I would have plugged in my headphones, but being neither, I found myself drifting into a daydream as a patient in the waiting room of a doctor’s office might absentmindedly flip through a magazine.
In the daydream, I go from the park straight home where Nina is waiting for me there, even though she is at work now and is often never home before I am. Even so, when I arrive, she is standing in the kitchen stirring something in a heavy pot on the stove with her back to me so that she does not hear me when I come in. In my daydream, she has nothing on but an apron, which is tied with a big bow. I don’t think she even has an apron. But in my daydream she does.
I don’t say anything. I just stand in the entrance to the kitchen watching her like I do sometimes when I come back to bed in the middle of the night and she is still asleep. However, in the daydream, I have on a hat and am carrying a briefcase, and I am dressed like Gregory Peck in the movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. I want to go over to her and wrap my arms around her and ask her what’s for dinner? But then, as if she senses I’m there behind her, she turns around with this other face, a face I don’t recognize but in a voice that’s still familiar, and answers, “I’m cooking up our baby, silly.”
I looked over and a little bird had hopped upon the edge of my bench. He was no bigger than a tennis ball, and he eyed me in that suspicious way birds have of doing, by turning their heads to the side and looking at you with one eye, like someone peering through the peephole of a door. So I watched him, too, looking through one eye while I pretended to look straight ahead at the people and pigeons in the park.
He hopped up on the back of the bench, perching for no more than a few seconds and then hopped back onto the seat, turning first one way and then the other, always keeping an eye on me. Several times he went to the edge of the bench like a diver contemplating a leap from the high board, but each time he just looked at the pigeons milling underneath, pecking the ground for specks of waste, and reconsidered, hopping back away from the edge before beginning all over again.
He was getting used to me, I think, and I to him, for I could now shift my weight, even recross my legs without causing him to fly off, although the first time I shifted positions, he flew almost straight up, helicopter-style, to a low branch just above where I was sitting, low enough that I could have reached it if I had been standing up. When he saw that I was harmless, he dropped back down on the top slat of the bench and began pecking between his toes, as if grooming himself, then began pecking under his wings, first one and then the other, executing a 180 degree hop-turn so that he could keep one eye on me at all times.
These ablutions turned into a search for parasites. When he found something, his head went back, his neck jutted out, and his beak snapped. This was followed by puffing his breast out into a fluffy ball of pillow feathers like a baby chick. Upon finishing, he gave his wings several flaps, but did not take off; it was more like a dog shaking water off after having been given a bath or come in from the rain. A cottony feather wafted into the air, drifted to the ground and was immediately set upon by the pigeons.
My friend (I had inexplicably developed an attachment to him)—I will call him Harry—watched for a moment then hopped back from the brink of the bench and began cooing with such a throaty vibrato and surprising bravado that at its conclusion (It could not have lasted more than ten or twelve seconds.) I wanted to applaud. Instead, we both just sat there, or rather I sat there, and he stood, slightly off to the end of the bench, occasionally flapping up onto the backrest, and then a few seconds later descending back down onto the seat, hop-scotching between the end and the middle, between the edge and the end.
Taking care not to move too suddenly, I reopened my lunch and retrieved a partially-eaten half-sandwich and very carefully broke off a piece of crust and set it on the bench beside me. Harry looked at me then at the bread then back at me in that one-eye jerky way that reminded me of the toy wind-up dolls they used to sell on street corners.
For perhaps thirty seconds there was a kind of face-off, me not moving (not even blinking), Harry not moving (not even ratcheting his head), and the tiny crust of bread just laying on the green slatted seat of the bench not more than an inch from my thigh between us.
I gave in first. Very slowly, I picked the bread back up and put it into my mouth, but instead of eating it, I rolled it into a ball with my saliva and then very slowly opened my mouth and carefully stuck out my tongue (Nina calls my tongue her little mouse), the ball of bread resting on it, I imagine, as a tiny pearl on a little pink pillow.
Harry cocked his head to one side, his little black eye like a bead from one of the brightly-colored, leather-craft belts I used to make at summer camp.
It was my move again, and I took the tiny ball of bread (it was now more like a piece of dough) and set it down on the bench between us. Harry’s head ratcheted down to the ball and then back up to me. I just looked at Harry. Then, drawing back my forefinger to form an “OK” with my thumb, I gently flicked the ball (that was not a true ball at all, but egg-shaped) in Harry’s direction. Like a miniature football, it wobble-rolled six inches and fell between the wooden slats.
Harry cocked his head again. We both could see the ball of bread beneath the bench. So too could several pigeons that raced over, flapping their wings, not to fly but to beat back their rivals. Watching them this way through the bench was like being a Greek or Roman god who had set things into motion and then stood back and watched the outcome.
After perhaps a minute of their thrashing about under the bench, a greater god appeared along the path wearing a closet of coats and sweaters, and rolling a two-wheeled laundry cart in front of her stuffed with blankets and pillows. The pigeons flocked to her, some waddling about her ankles, some roosting on her cart, some perching on her sleeves and shoulders, but all of them gathering to her as children to Mother Goose.
I followed her, too—with my eyes. But when I turned back, Harry was watching me.
I thought for a moment of the way I silently watched Nina.
I tore off another piece of bread. And then another and another until there were perhaps ten small pieces of bread along with the rest of the half-eaten sandwich lying in my lap. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision on my part, but I did not tear completely through the bread, as if trying to avoid taking any bread that might have been pressed against the chicken—if that is what I had in fact been eating. I did not know if Harry would know the difference or not, but it did not, since I knew the difference, seem right.
All the while I did this, Harry did not take his eye off the bread, and I did not take my eye off Harry.
When I had finished pinching each piece off, I moistened it with the tip of my tongue, rolled it into a little ball, and carefully lined each one up along the bench, one in front of the other and an inch apart in what amounted to an elongated ellipsis extending in a straight line toward Harry.
Harry looked at the little balls of bread. I had not thought of it before, but they must have looked like little eggs to him.
What if someone had lined up one, two, three, four, five . . . ten infants in front of me? Would I have eaten them?
Was Nina’s miscarriage punishment for the abortion? Her doctor had said there was no physical connection.
You can’t help thinking, however. Blaming.
Harry looked from the bread to me several times, hopped back keeping his eye on me, switching off, first the left eye and then the right.
I had simply sat beside the bed, watching Nina sleeping. They had given her something to help her rest. She just looked at me before closing her eyes. I was still holding her hand, squeezing it. I wished there were some way to darken the room, make it seem that she was really sleeping in our own bed and not simply in some hospital room sedated. I wanted to climb onto the bed alongside her and wrap myself around her like a cover, resting my head against her neck and my hand just underneath the rise of her stomach, rubbing it slowly and telling her it was all right, all right, as if I could somehow will it so, as if saying it enough times would make it true. As if I had any influence at all. Any role to play other than to stand in the corner of the room while the doctor and nurses did all that they could do to save the only thing I was capable of giving to her worth saving.
Suddenly I felt myself in spasm as when almost asleep you feel your entire body jerk, and I found myself holding Harry so tightly that I could feel his heart knocking in my hand.
Before anything but surprise could register in his eyes, before anything more than a reflexive peck could draw blood between my thumb and forefinger, my hand had tightened so quickly around his slender body (his feathers were little more than sham armor) that I could feel his skeleton snapping like a handful of tiny twigs.
It all happened so quickly that I’m certain Harry didn’t feel any pain. He never even knew I called him Harry. Yet I continued to squeeze his body until my fingernails were digging into my own flesh.
Nina and I had talked about names. If it was a boy we had thought about naming him after my father. If she was a girl, there were several names we liked. But nothing was etched in stone. Nina had not even wanted the doctor to tell us after she had taken the sonogram. She said she wanted to be surprised.
“She doesn’t even like me to give her hints about Christmas presents,” I told the doctor.
Afterward, however, she asked one of the nurses what it was, and she told her it was a girl.
I was angry at her for asking and angry at the nurse for telling, and I remained angry at Nina for days after that—even when she was still recovering in the hospital, even after I had taken her back home. For the first few weeks, I would go into our half-painted baby’s room and stand looking out the window or just sit on the floor staring at the wall. It took almost seven months before we were up to finishing the room, and after we did there was a faint line where we had ended the first time and started up the second, but there was not enough paint to go back over the whole wall, so we just left it.
My hand was cramping, my fingers so stiff and slow when I tried opening them that it would not have surprised me if, like in the movies, it had sounded like the prying open of a coffin’s lid.
What I saw in my hand was no longer a bird, no longer Harry, but a tiny fetus, weightless and feathery, like a little soul. Like an angel.
And I ate it.