Okay, Okay I’ll tell you. There was this six-foot-three very large man who lived with his cousin who had constant sore throats. The man was about forty-five (his name was Harry) and the cousin was sixteen which is quite a stretch in age but the cousin’s parents had recently died in an overpass collapse and Harry, living alone, offered to take the boy in. The cousin (his name was Donald) was in love with a girl who had a two-loop nose ring the second hoop coming down almost to her pink mouth—and who rode subways all day when her parent (she only had a father) thought she was in school.
Harry owned a bead shop that Tally (that was the girlfriend’s name) used to come into and although she was much younger, he more or less fell in love with her too. When no one was looking, she would put a bead into her mouth, roll it around and Harry somehow found that very sensual. Of course she never swallowed the bead as that would be stealing which she knew about because she read a book on gypsies once who stole diamonds at the Fifth Avenue Tiffany’s that way.
Donald and Tally met every day in Harvard Square (this was Boston) and sometimes they went back to Harry’s house to make love but not very often because they were both kind of confused about what their relationship was except neither could stand it if they didn’t get to see each other every afternoon by the stainless-steel hand bars leading up from the Square subway stop. A bank with a bank machine across the street was opposite the subway mouth and a Gap but that’s irrelevant to the story and to them because they only ate slices of pizza slices at Pizza Hut or Bertollucci’s and sometimes at McDonald’s but not slices.
People get colds a lot in Boston. I get them myself but that wasn’t what the problem was with Donald’s throat, I don’t think.He probably damaged his throat’s lining from swallowing fingernails which he always chewed practically to the cuticle.
Then one day, as you could almost guess, Tally didn’t show up in Harvard Square when Donald thought he would meet her. He didn’t know what to do so he went across the street to McDonald’s and stared out the window which seemed like forever. A little kid came in with his mother and while they were in line the boy threw a cold French fry at Donald but Donald hardly noticed. He had his usual sore throat but he wasn’t thinking about that either. Just about Tally. Then suddenly a blue jay flew into the window and flopped on to the sidewalk outside. A group gathered and among them was a tall blond woman chewing on a clump of hair pulled across her mouth by one of her hands which had a huge green plastic ring. Her eyes met Donald’s through the glass and she stayed there staring while Donald fidgeted but didn’t look away. Finally she left but it was a moment he never forgot.
People get colds a lot in Boston. I get them myself but that wasn’t what the problem was with Donald’s throat, I don’t think. He probably damaged his throat’s lining from swallowing fingernails which he always chewed practically to the cuticle. Other people tend to spit them out but Donald shredded them with his teeth and swallowed. It took a certain esophagus action to do this but Donald was good at it after all these years. He’d done it since he was seven when his mother who worked as a short-order cook died when an ambulance hit her entering a crosswalk.
The bead shop was across the street from a movie theater Harry went to at least three nights a week because he and Donald didn’t eat dinner at the apartment where they had their clothes and CDs. Sometimes he ate a burger before, but a lot of the time he bought a sub, slipped it into his overcoat pocket and ate it in one of the back rows which is where he always sat. His overcoat was midnight blue so he faded into the scenery as they say—the theater walls, that is, which were stucco black. I mean black stucco. I forgot to say Harry wore a blue-bead choker necklace.
The night Tally didn’t meet Donald where she usually did, but ended up in a back row seat at the movie theater where Harry was too—and where I often go. I know it seems like a gigantic coincidence but we’ll never know because here’s what happened after that.
It turns out there was some frayed yellow underwear on a clothesline behind a house two blocks from the Square that caught on fire—or I should say was set on fire by some kids—earlier that night, with flames running up the line to the house which was old clapboard and went off like a firecracker on the Fourth. Tally, who had suddenly bolted for no reason from the routine with Donald, had been walking by the Gap when she saw the fire and was terrified because once there had been a fire in the garage of the house where she lived when she was little. That fire had burned to death her cat called Mousey. She would always be terrified of fires and run for cover whenever she heard a siren. It was the truck for the underwear fire that sent her into the movie theater that night when Harry was there.
Only neither one knew the other was there until Harry went out to get popcorn (the movie was Mata Hari, a Greta Garbo rerun) and he passed Tally in a back row which, of course, surprised him so he said hello and when he went out to the concessions stand he bought a popcorn for her too and a large Pepsi and brought it back. She recognized him from the bead shop but she didn’t know he was Donald’s uncle, of course. The exit light in the rear of the theater was broke but nobody noticed and everybody headed out that door anyway including Harry trying to catch up with Tally which he did and asked her if she’d like to go for a beer.
They ended up at an Irish bar about four blocks from the bead shop and when they sat down on the high wooden stools across from the whiskey bottles doubled because of the mirror behind, Harry asked Tally why she bought beads—what she did with them and things like that. He had, of course, to explain why he asked. She said she didn’t use them. She just liked to put them in jelly jars and set them on the windowsill in her bedroom. Every once in a while, she said, she swallowed one, but never a very big one. It was fun to find out how long it took before she heard the clink. Sometimes never, she said. I guess I’ve told that part now so I’ll go on.
They each had three drinks (Harry had bourbon; Tally Scotch) and talked about movies and shops that had been pushed out by the big chains in the Square, even the little chess shop that sold carved ebony and marble pieces. Then Harry asked her if she’d like to come back to his place and listen to some jazz and she said no, maybe another time and they said good night right there at the bar. But that night Tally never went back home to sleep. She rode the Red Line back and forth all night.
By morning her father had reported her missing and the police were looking for her. When she came up the steps from the Red Line in the Square about 7:30 in the morning, a policeman came up, asked her name, and told her she had been reported missing by her father. She said she was on her way home now and the policeman told her he would drive her but instead of going straight to her father’s place on Grove street, he drove her around and around several blocks asking her questions about herself. It was a little suspicious, but he finally dropped her off and she went in.
You’d have thought Donald would have been upset when Tally never came that night but he wasn’t. That is, after a few hours of staring. He went home and went to bed and while he was there just thinking in the shadows of the Venetian blinds with the racket of trucks going by outside he made a snap decision. He’d go to Texas. He’d just up and quit school and take some of the money he had from when his parents died and he’d get the hell out of Cambridge where it seemed nobody felt very good about they way they were. For God knows what reason. The next day Donald waited ’til his uncle left for the bead shop, packed up a bag with mostly socks and underwear, took the T to the Greyhound bus station and got a ticket for Houston.
But here’s the sad thing. He never made it. In the stretch between Cleveland and Indianapolis the driver who probably wasn’t even sixty had a coronary and let go of the steering wheel, not to speak of failing to connect with the brakes and the bus careened into a backhoe parked for roadwork. The front-loader part went through two of the windows on the left side and that’s where Donald was. Glass cut his throat and he choked to death on blood even before the ambulance arrived.
Harry learned about this because Donald had a bead shop card in his wallet and the state police called and told him about the accident. Harry was stunned, I happened to know, because I saw him two days later when he was packing to fly out and get the body. You have to get bodies and bring them to burial sites which is what Harry did but he didn’t have a ceremony or anything. He just had Donald cremated and the ashes put in a velvet-lined box that vendors use for shipping beads. One day, almost a month later which was May, he took the bag to the Aquarium stop on the Blue Line and threw the box into the Boston Harbor. It seemed abrupt, but Harry had prepared himself for the moment and he said it was just the way life was.
Tally’s father, meanwhile, had decided to keep a much closer eye on her and had contacted the high school (it was Cambridge Ringe and Latin) guidance counselor to let him know whether she turned up at school each day or not. Her father (his name was Fred Rostrum) was a property assessor and could be contacted at any time, he told the counselor.
Surprisingly Tally took to the routine and not only started attending her scheduled eleventh-grade classes, but started making friends with some the other punky students who had double rings or pink hair and who lived with one parent or two who didn’t know each other. She still hung out in the Square, still wandered into the bead shop from time to time. She actually started to chew her hair something like that woman in the McDonald’s window did which seems like ages ago now, but she did her school work at night and started thinking about the future. She forgot Donald (she didn’t, of course, know he was dead) and Harry, who was no one to her, really. It was only a blurry future she got thinking about but it was a start.
Now I’ll tell you how I know Harry. I’m in love with him, or I guess I am, since I saw him in the bead shop five months ago. His nephew had just moved in then, and I tried to follow what was going on. It’s all pretty complicated. I don’t know much more about Tally than I’ve told you or about her father. Well, yes, a little. I know her father met a young woman who chewed her hair (yes, it could be the same one) and this woman whose name was Candice moved in with him which caused a lot of conflict between them (as a threesome) so Tally finally moved out to live with a punker girlfriend. But Tally has some kind of character strength (as opposed to flaw) and I have a feeling she’ll be fine. She still goes into the bead shop from time to time and she told Harry recently she’s going to college. Bard. Her father is glad to pay.
Me and Harry? Well, you figure it out. I don’t know what to say. I’ve been driving large trucks—forklifts, bulldozers, backhoes, steam shovels—for twenty-two years since I dropped out of high school in Richard, California. My father (his name was Ray) had a shoe shop that never did very well so he finally emptied it out, rented the space, and retired. My mother (her name’s Alice) flew helicopters for an ambulance service in Fresno which meant she was away a lot. I came East on a Greyhound when I was sixteen and I’ve only gone back once which was when my father died of cancer. My mother, who is now retired, comes to visit me around Easter time every year. She doesn’t stay long and that’s Okay because we don’t have much to say to each other. I don’t know why I’m in love with Harry but it’s an emotion you want to have and I’m lucky because that first time when I happened to see him at the movie theater, I got it.
Lynne Potts has had her work appear in Paris Review, Nimrod, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Oxford Magazine, Southern Poetry Review, DrumVoices, New Orleans Review, and The Journal. She is Poetry Editor at AGNI and has won the Bowery Poetry Club’s H.D. Award and the 2007 Backwards City Review Poetry Contest. She was a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was awarded residencies at Ragsdale and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov.
This exquisite novel begins with a thirty-page poem in the voice of a grieving father whose young daughter has committed suicide. In the rest of the novel a narcissistic academic who lives next door to the father of the lost girl “decodes” the poem with the use of footnotes to make it be all about himself. Together the two parts reveal the full force of Nabakov’s compassion, wit, and intolerance for literary pretense.
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino.
In this thoroughly whimsical novel (thoroughly Calvino), a young boy leaves the dinner table one evening, climbs a tree in the backyard, and refuses to come down. Ever. In fact, he stays in the trees for the rest of his life, marrying, having a family, and living to old age. You have to read it to believe the author could tell such an absurd tale about “real life” and with such charm.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.
This may have a pretentious-sounding title, but if you’ve wondered how (in the world!) Homo sapiens acquired the strange brain agility we call consciousness, you will enjoy this book. It not only presents a fascinating theory for how man developed his abstract-thinking ability, but you will find it very readable as well.
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