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The Trouble With Harry
You see, people are generally associated with things they’re good at. Kenneth Browning was the best long-ranged shooter six counties up. Jeanette Locke could crochet the dickens out of any old piece of yarn she found lying around. But Harry, what everyone knew about Harry was that he didn’t sing no more.
Pinkerton ain’t really the singing type of environment, I guess. The sky’s all suffocated with smog over from The City, don’t forget to mention the oil rigs they got back five miles out, where men come in white and dry and out black and slick as the devil’s tongue. However that didn’t stop the occasional fellow from hummin’ or whistlin’ a tune as they went off to work.
But you see, Harry was a different sort of man. They say that back in his prime, back when he had the flaxen hair to make the ladies swoon and big, broad shoulders to lift heavy rotted wood to put in the burner, they say that back then he had a voice that could carry Moses and all his people across the Red Sea. He sold out concerts all over Tennessee with sweet songs and calloused hands plucking weathered guitar strings, his hair dangling over his face as he sang, body reverberating with the impact of a big old freight as he crooned over lost loves and still hearts.
The thing is though, that his family really messed him in the head. His brother Benny I hear was mistaken for some sort of serial killer who was putting toes in jars, and the police shot him down after seeing him exit from one of them gourmet stores with a jar of pickled olives. Turns out the serial killer was actually Benny’s son Richard, which I bet didn’t help Harry any, in terms of conscience, of course. Richard got a visit to the chair where he drank down a couple thousand volts that left his tongue swollen as a baby’s gut.
But apparently Harry musta gotten over that, at least a little ‘cause the very next month he was married to Marion Frank. It was a sudden affair—she donned a simple white shift and he his best Sunday suit. None of that fancy stuff, they just went right to the County Hall. They bought a tidy two-bedroom house with the nicest porch you ever saw: white-washed columns and such a lovely porch swing that creaked with every swell and draw. And he sang on that porch every night, played his sweet songs and belted great ballads to his Marion. Wasn’t a month later that Harry broke past the saloon doors (Mack’s place, you know, the place with the salty peanuts) and announced that young Marion—who was just 19, mind you, to his 30 years—was with his child. The next month Dr. Holbrook trudged through those same saloon doors with a bucket of blood and water with three tears in his eye. They swore they could hear Marion’s screams to the next county over. The next time she came out of that house was in a pinewood box; her body unblemished, save for a nick on her neck where they had to cut the noose off.
And then the singing stopped.
No one saw much of Harry after that, and that’s the truth. Well—not exactly. Everyday old Harry would sit outside on that porch swing. He didn’t do nothing though: just sat there staring out ahead at him as if there was something there we didn’t know about. He had a routine that us townfolk eventually grew to know: up at the sherbert-colored dawn that bled into the sky each morning, to his weathered seat on that porch swing, and finally back inside when the sky became a murky sort and the children read their prayers. That was it—every day for thirty years. No one noticed him anymore; he became part of the town’s foliage. Occasionally a newcomer or small child would inquire, and that was met by a knowing smile and the same answer:
“That’s old man Harry. Crazy as a hatter.”
That’s how it was every day, every day for the thirty years passing Marion’s death. Harry’s head became smooth and his body wasted. The townsfolk watched him waste away in that chair, his eyes sinking further, ever further into the earth.
Then one day, Grace came to town. Grace Harris was just a girl of ten, with gothic curls and porcelain skin muddied by a squashed tomato blush, cherry fingers and the thickest pair of glasses anyone from Pinkerton ever saw on someone less than eighty years of age. Grace wanted to read and play fantasy, all dragons and mermaids, and the other girls in town, they just wanted to talk about boys and marriage.
That afternoon was by no means an excitable or particularly eventful one, least by my point of view. I’m sure that somewhere Mrs. Such-and-such’s baby spoke his first word and that Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so got hitched in a chapel brimming with roses, but the Smith boys were playing in the road just as usual, disrupting traffic and all that, and Nate Townsend was walking that damned dog he loved so much. Hank had just ran out of potatoes at his grocery and that Mrs. Mapleberry was seen on the verge of tears as she’d been planning on making her famous leek and potato stew that night.
That afternoon was by no means an excitable or particularly eventful one, until God decided to send his tears cascading into Pinkerton without even notifying us with some clouds or the like. Now at that precise moment when the first rain drop thudded against our dry cracked earth, Grace Harris stopped right in front of old man Harry’s gloomy old porch, clad in but a jumper and some dirty old kicks. Little Gracie glanced up, taking notice of the shattered windows, the weatherworn lavender paint bleeding off in streaks, before focusing on the old man himself. His eyes bore into hers, foreboding, warning her away as he had done for anyone who had come knocking the last thirty years, but there was something that Gracie saw in those eyes, those eyes like pale moons freezing at the bottom of a lake, that decided her path.
Gracie timidly set one foot on a step not approached for a decade, at the least. The old man’s mouth flew open as he let out a brief ahh of surprise, the sound no louder then the blistery wind that swept up Grace’s locks. The old man’s breath tickled beneath his nose, and well I think that was the first time that he had felt alive, truly alive, at least since he had left with his wife’s broken body.
Grace put her hand forward as naturally as a hunter comes to his prey, and she took his hand in hers, and it was sand and rock clashing with soft waves. That old man Harry didn’t stand one chance against the girl. Gracie led Harry through the cracking arches of his own house, and those lucky enough to witness, they forgot the rain was beating on their unclothed backs and went to tell every person they could damn well find. The Smith boys, they dropped their ball and their mouths to the dirt ground. Mr. Townsend, he was so shocked he didn’t notice his pup taking a piss on the couch. And Mrs. Mapleberry, she forgot the very recipe to her stew, and she finally let loose that itching tear.
Gracie shut the fading white door behind her and the old man, and led Harry to the kitchen table that he hadn’t sat by in too long. She found a pot and some tea and set that to boil, the old man clenched the edges of his chair until his knuckles were see-through under his leathery skin, his eyes tracking the girl’s every movement, unable to be pried away by the strongest of crowbars.
Grace danced over to the table, brushing away a cobweb that was sitting on her chair before plopping right on down. Her curious emerald eyes, masked by layers of glass, matched Harry’s livid pewter, and refused to budge. They were both stubborn as anything, those two. But it was she who finally submitted.
“Mr. Harry, why don’t you sing no more?”
Harry’s breath flew into his chest. His eyes melted just a little, twisting from rage to regret. For a second there, the old man lost his glacial hostility and became absolutely defenseless, completely vulnerable, a fly without his wings. His mouth unbolted, and he gestured forward, as if to say something. Instead he leaned back into the rotting wood of his chair, throat exposed to Grace, eyes wide and mouth agape, staring into the eyes of God.
Grace asked once more, “Mr. Harry, why don’t you sing no more?”
This time instead of air, words flooded from Harry’s throat.
“Because when I sing, I can hear them crying.”
And this time, when Harry let down his head to meet Grace’s gaze, that regret had turned into a deep, solid, nothingness. The light no longer reflected against that tranquil lake, no, the light had disappeared all together.
Grace had heard the stories.
“But Mr. Harry, they’s up in heaven now, they don’t cry no more”.
As she finished her sentence the kettle whistled its shrill cry, and Grace leapt to get their tea all milk and sugared.
“You remind me of her. How she should have looked. Not the glasses though—no my family prides itself on its record of perfect vision.”
He finished his sentence with a thunderous bark of laughter. He was still in goddamn hysterics when Grace returned with their tea. She wasn’t laughing.
“You don’t think they woulda wanted you to be happy?”
Whatever joy the old man had the moment before was gone. Grave again, he now gave the girl a glare that would have haunted even the grisliest of ghosts.
“I’m not here to be happy. I can never be happy.”
“Then why did you stay all these years? Why didn’t you follow that lady of yours into sleep?”
The old man paused for what seemed like a very long time, avoiding Grace’s eye.
“You wouldn’t understand, little girl.”
“Well Mr. Harry, you can try can’t you? I’m smart, my momma tells me that I’m soon to be smarter then she is. Please Mr. Harry, I want to know.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“The other people in this neighborhood, in this town, they afraid of you. But I’m not afraid of you, just want to know why you always look so sad.”
Harry’s hand, withered with veins like spiders, quaked and shook as he bent his head forward, silent tears cooling his tea.
The old man’s hand found itself entangled in little Gracie’s baby hand. The old man looked up.
“I was at Mack’s, when she died. Things were tense in our house, the baby was gone. I went to Mack’s to get a whiskey, take my mind off things. The last thing she ever said to me was that she’d be waiting, she’d be waiting right there. I came back and she was gone, she was gone but she promised, she promised me that she’d be waiting so I need to wait here, I need to wait here until she comes back, just like she promised, she promised to come back…”
Harry trailed off as the tea he was nursing trembled in his hands.
“Mr. Harry, you know where she’s waiting, and it’s not here.”
She was met with the quietest sort of silence.
A guttural demon scream tore from his lips, a shock that reverberated from deep down in his toes, out his mouth and to the rest of Tennessee. He emerged, heaving and weeping.
Gracie pushed her chair back as she stood, curls tangled and eyes wide open.
At that, Gracie nudged forward the rickety chair, and crossed the dusty wood parquet to Harry’s door. Gracie paused for just one second, one foot in, one foot out of the doorsill, before running off to play and gossip with the Smith boys, running faster then she ever had before.
The sun shined strong overhead against the harmony of the sounds of the Smith boys’ shrill laughter, the trembling fingers of a little girl, and the sound of a man and his melody of howls and shrieks, hell bent on ripping himself to shreds of nothing.