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Glimpse of Henry
Down a winding dirt road that slithered through the densest parts of the woods, there was a clearing. In the clearing was a gravel driveway in front of a house. The house was old, but clean. Two floors, a basement, electricity and plumbing. In the house was the dwindling Henry Carpenter. He was 92, and had moved up to Connecticut from South Dakota six years earlier, at his doctor’s insistence that, after the death of his wife, he needed to get out.
And for about four years he had lived with a nurse. In her 30’s, a tall woman, Liza Bell felt terribly sad for Henry. An only child, no friends or relatives left alive (or considerate enough to seek him out), and a tragedy in his life that left him alone. To her knowledge, about six years ago, Henry’s wife, Clarissa Carpenter, who had been 84 at the time, had been cleaning the bathroom at the Carpenter’s old home in South Dakota. She fell into the bathtub. No one else was home.
Now it was only Henry and Liza. The world felt very small up there in the woods to Liza. And it didn’t help that Henry had stopped going upstairs for the past year. She had brought in some friends to help move his bed to the downstairs living room. Henry wouldn’t sleep on the couch. And Liza probably wouldn’t have let him.
On the last day Liza worked for Henry Carpenter, the winter chill was finally beginning to settle in. It was mid November, and Liza was at the sink, washing the dishes from lunch. She stared out the window in front of her, into the depths of the woods, as her hands washed plates with rapid, sudsy circles. Two plates to be washed. Two glasses, plus silverware.
She began the second plate.
Over the crackle of water running in the sink, she heard soft steps approaching behind her, every other step accented by a quiet tap. Henry had been using a cane since before Clarissa’s death.
Liza didn’t turn around. She began humming, trying to act as though she hadn’t heard him. As much as Liza detested herself for this, she didn’t want to turn around. Henry was fading fast, and Liza didn’t like seeing that face, that poor body…
That voice was all broken glass and dry wind. Liza’s eyes watered every time Henry spoke. And still, she didn’t turn around. The sudsy circles went about their business undeterred, scrubbing long after the plate was clean.
She was able to keep her voice steady and nonchalant. “One second, Henry. I’m just finishing up here.”
“I’m not going to be here tomorrow.”
The circles slowed. Liza intent gaze on the forest faltered.
“Why?” she asked.
She heard the steps crossing the room. Tap. Tap. She gathered that he was headed for the window in the opposite wall. He always liked that view.
“I’m going to South Dakota for Thanksgiving.”
“Yes. It will be good to see my family again.”
Liza felt a brick drop into her stomach. The circles stopped.
“Henry, I think that we should have Thanksgiving here this year.”
“…Why is that?”
“The weather. The news said that a snowstorm is going to hit the coast in a few days. Travel will be impossible.”
“Are you sure?”
A pause. “Oh. What a dreadful shame… everyone was expecting me. I hate to disappoint… Would you please help me to the telephone, Elizabeth? I must tell Clarissa…”
With shaking hands, she dried the spotless plate and stacked it on the first one. Drawing in a breath of reassurance, she turned around.
She didn’t have to see his face, he was still turned toward the window. But that crooked back made Liza wince. Henry might have been six feet tall at some point in his life. Now he was five foot-five. His dark red sweater hardly covered up the curves of his spine, and Liza could barely see the top of his wispy white hair over his shoulder. She swallowed.
“Actually, Henry… when I heard about the storm, I put a call in myself.”
He slowly turned to face her. Once Henry had been a friendly old man, and he still was, but now, as Liza looked down into his face, she saw something more akin to a corpse, or skeleton, than man. Through his thin white hair, Liza could see purple-blue veins weave a web that encased his head. The skin on his face seemed to both be too small and too loose – as if someone had shrink-wrapped Henry’s skull. His nose was too small and too red. His mouth perpetually hung open, and he would sometimes drool. And now those watery gray eyes met Liza’s.
“Oh, good,” he said. “…but if you don’t mind, Elizabeth… I should like to speak with my wife, please…”
“Well, I was about to say, Henry – when I called, the storm had already hit down in South Dakota. The phones were all down.”
Henry’s eyes left Liza’s. She felt like she’d been released from a choke hold. Now he turned back to the window and stared. Liza waited for a moment, but there was nothing more. She quickly turned back to the sink and started putting away the dishes.
“I wish you’d known me before, Elizabeth.”
Liza stopped before she could touch the glass she was reaching for.
She heard Henry wet his lips. “I was tall once… and I loved to read. And… you might find this incredible, Elizabeth, but as the years go by, I swear that the color blue just isn’t quite as brilliant.”
He made a sound like chuckling. A sad sound. “When I die, my friend, I’m not going to be 92 forever. I’m going to be 25.”
Now they both turned, and their eyes met again. Confused brown and pleading gray. Henry smiled, and the energy seemed to leave him. His body sagged.
Liza went to him, gently holding him up by the elbows. “You’re tired. Let’s get you to bed.”
And so Henry Carpenter went to bed at 3:30 pm on November 12th.
Liza was relieved when she woke up the next morning to find Henry had died in his sleep. His eyes were closed, and a pool of saliva had collected on his pillow.
Soon the body was taken away. She was not able to attend the funeral; he was brought down to South Dakota to be buried next to Clarissa Carpenter. Henry left Liza the house in the woods in his will. She sold it and moved back to her old place in Rhode Island.
After selling the house, she never saw those woods again.
She didn’t like those woods.