Harry cursed as images of black, beating wings pursued him down to the lobby of his office building. Spinning through the revolving doors, he strode onto the broad plaza surrounded by bank towers. He checked his watch. Just enough time to visit Dad at the nursing home.
At six o’clock, long black shadows divided Bay Street, flanked by office towers, posted like silent sentries along his path. Harry chose the sunlit side on his three-block walk to the parking garage. Only a few beautiful old buildings with polished brass and inlaid tiles remained, nestled among the cold, vast structures of concrete and glass.
Suddenly, he stopped in front of one of the few shops fronting the street. Jefferies and Son Ltd. was the oldest and finest haberdashery in the city. The mellow glow of the shop windows seduced Harry inward. Bolts of wool fabric, in the subtlest shades of gray and blue, were displayed on a mahogany table. Yards of suits, important looking even on their hangers, lined the far wall.
Dad’s suits were made of scratchy wool, worn thin at the cuffs and shiny at the knees. Harry imagined his thin-lipped disapproval at the sight of the finery before him. For Dad, unnecessary expenditure of money was immoral. For Harry, his refusal was a bitter denial of life and small pleasure.
“Good afternoon, sir. May I be of assistance? Perhaps you are looking for something to complement your suit?”
Harry felt favorably appraised. “I was really just browsing…” He hesitated. “Actually, I could do with another suit.”
“Certainly, sir. Our tailor is expert at custom-made.”
Within moments, Harry stood before a three-panel mirror. The salesman hung up his jacket, and the tailor set about measuring. Bolts of material were held out for his inspection. His hand lingered over the dark blue fabric with the finest gray stripe.
The salesman’s mustache twitched with pleasure as he unfurled a yard and let it drape against Harry. Instantly knowing it was right, Harry ordered the suit.
As if in a dream, he examined exquisitely matched shirts and ties. Creams, blues, and soft yellows and burgundy. Dad would have never understood his sensuous pleasure, as his fingers caressed one incredibly soft sleeve after another. Visions of Natasha expressing delight floated before him. Smiling, he ordered the whole display. His father’s determined thrift seemed a sad and bitter denial of life. Harry glanced at his watch as the man rang up the order. Now, he really would have to hurry.
Last fall, Harry had placed his father at the Foxcroft Nursing Home, set in a densely wooded area in the middle of the city. Prepared for protest, he had wheeled Stanley up the ramp. Clutching his tartan blanket tightly, the old man stared vacantly out over the pond caught in the golden sunlight. Stanley’s pale, pink head lolled dangerously to one side. Harry caught his shoulder and looked into his eyes. Of course, there was intelligence and recognition. Dad looked back at him with interest. Or did he? Harry turned to see gray squirrels bouncing about on the back lawn. Stanley’s eyes followed their chase, first up a tree, then along a branch. His shoulders sinking, Harry almost wished for an argument to have some communication.
Thank God, by some miracle, they had started talking last year while it was still possible. But for years, Harry’s life with Dad was mired in silent misunderstanding. When his sister Anna, nearly catatonic with polio, had taken her last breath inside that iron lung, Dad died too. Harry was only eight then. Dad slipped ever downward and was closed off to him until last year. Suddenly released from a coma after a fall, his father began to talk. The first thing he asked for was forgiveness for all the lost years between them. They had made a start. But you could never really forgive until the wounds were healed.
Today, he spotted his father outside in the courtyard. How extraordinary to hear his voice so loud and clear.
“May I please have a glass of water?”
Two nurses on break chatted at a nearby table.
“Please! I would like a glass of water?” Insistent but still polite. Such clarity for a man who rarely spoke! The women continued to talk as if he existed in an unreachable dimension.
His father’s voice became piteous. “I’m very thirsty. I need water.”
“Jesus!” Harry strode down the steps. Turning on the nurses, he said, “Can’t you hear Mr. Jenkins? He’s asking plainly as can be for water.” How right his father was in his complaints of nursing homes!
The nurses gaped at him, open-mouthed. “But we gave him one ten minutes ago. See! The glass is still there.”
Harry saw a small but empty glass set on a table beside his father. He was incredulous. “Hasn’t it occurred to you he might like some more? It’s the simplest of requests.”
Anger rose in him. Christ! Is everyone deaf, dumb, and blind? Then a wave of sadness swept over him. No one gives a damn. At last, one of the women slouched off resentfully for more water. Harry almost laughed at the enormity of the logic. Such a request was evidence, not of thirst, but mental derangement. Undoubtedly, in their minds, compliance would only encourage endless demands. The nurse returned with a large pitcher of water. The ice cubes clanked, and the water sloshed as she set it on the table.
Harry’s tone was formal. “Thank you, madam,” he said, pouring a glass and holding it to his father’s lips.
Staring at the nurse, Stanley drank noisily, and then looked up at his son with something resembling warm affection. Taking his hand, Harry cleared his throat to speak.
With neither warning nor reason, Stanley’s eyes narrowed with burning fury as though accusing Harry of unspeakable crimes.
“What is it, Dad?” Harry asked gently.
Stanley growled, “You goddamned fucker!” He lurched back in his chair. “Your kind always thinks you’ll get away with it!” Spittle sprayed on Harry’s sleeve. “Always cheating and shitting people. Shitting and cheating everyone.” He grasped his cane and raised it.
Harry took his father’s arm as gently as he could. “Dad, please!” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s me, Harry, your son. What’s wrong?” Carefully, he pried the gnarled fingers from the stick.
His father had suddenly grown insanely paranoid before. Harry wondered why some lessons in his life had to be repeated time and again. But at last, he was learning that the need for love never ended.
For several moments, he tried calm reason and soothing tones, until at last, Stanley slumped back in his chair and began to weep. Tears flowed unabated down his cheeks as if he were a small boy again. When his sniffles subsided, he looked at Harry with rheumy eyes.
“It’s you, son,” he whispered. “Thank you for coming.”
Harry sighed in relief. Just like Norma, his father tripped into shadows of madness and back again to the light.
Harry pulled up a chair and held his father’s hand. “It’s nice in the garden at sunset, isn’t it, Dad?”
“You could die of thirst here, though,” said Stanley with a wry grin. “These damned jail guards!” He glared back at the nurses who, ignoring him, had returned to their conversation.
Harry took a moment to examine his father’s arms and hands. The skin was so thin, it was almost translucent. He made a mental note of the few bruises, which were often caused by the carelessness of the staff. Such compassionate keepers naturally disavowed any knowledge of them.
With Alzheimer’s, no one really knew the cause of the short-circuiting. Harry took the glass and touched his father’s wrist. “Dad? I’m going to be away for a little while.” Since communication could fizzle out without warning, he came to the point quickly. “I’m going to London.”
“England?” his father whispered.
“Yes, on business. For a week or so.”
“Laura, too?” his father mouthed.
Sadness clouded Harry’s eyes. Dad had forgotten about the divorce and Natasha. He shook his head. “It’s for a client. A lot of money is involved.”
Stanley nodded approvingly, or so Harry thought. Then his head began to sink toward his chest. His eyelids drooped.
Harry stood up. “When I’m back, we’ll go out for real drinks.”
When Harry tried gently to rouse him, Stanley smiled vacantly. Like a submerged sea creature, the madness of the disease could resurface at any moment. He kissed his father’s brow and hurried up the steps from the courtyard.
Outside, on the gravel drive, he glanced at his watch. It was only a quarter to eight, and he was not yet ready to face his empty house. He drove past a duck pond surrounded by mansions on a hill to the entrance of the park. The stone gates led him to the cobbled street lined with tiny cottages, once inhabited by the servants for the nearby mansions. To his left were the garages of the city transit company. Five sets of metal doors, at least three storeys high, faced a field of stubble. A distant smoke stack poked upward from the buildings, silhouetted against the burnt orange sun. Two red and yellow streetcars were marooned on a track. A steel gray Jeep with outsize tires idled nearby.
At the lights, Harry turned west onto St. Clair Avenue into the now blood red sun. Squinting, he saw several passengers from a streetcar step onto the deserted street.
Huge headlights stared into his rear window. Annoyed, Harry tapped on the brake. The vehicle dropped back and flashed its high beams. Harry moved into the curb lane, and the vehicle swerved in behind him, touching his bumper.
“For Christ sake!” He shot back into the passing lane.
Roaring, the truck raced along his passenger side.
It was the Jeep at the rail yards! Massive tires grazed the side of his car. Harry grew cold. Black tinted windows hid the driver. The Jeep had lain in wait for him.
Fear seized his gut as he barreled through the intersection, swerving left on a yellow light. Effortlessly, the Jeep chased after him, clanking his rear bumper on the turn. Rattling down the steep cobblestone hill, Harry raced on.
The Jeep crowded him all the way, right into the dark of a railway underpass. Lights glared in his mirror. The driver gave three long blasts on his horn.
Who was it? He could see only the black windshield, not into the cab. Where to turn for help? If he stopped, the Jeep would stop. Shooting past rows of deserted gas stations, he searched for his cell phone. Never a cop when you needed one.
The menacing black form loomed in his mirror, then shot out from behind to graze his side and then kiss his front bumper. Harry slammed on the brakes, pitching hard against the steering wheel.
Suddenly, the Jeep blasted its horn twice and careened onto a side street. Harry glimpsed a dark, hulking figure at the wheel. Gone.
Although he was shaking, he pulled over and parked carefully. Taking deep, noisy draughts of air, he finally calmed himself. His shirt was soaked. He did not even know the license plate, but he could give a pretty good description of the vehicle.
Without further thought, he called Natasha. The line was busy, but at least she was home. In ten minutes, he could be at her condo overlooking the lake.
“May I come up?” he asked Natasha on the phone at the concierge’s desk. She sounded hesitant and distracted.
“Yes, but I have a friend over, Harry.”
Harry’s face burned. Stupid to assume he could just walk in on her. “Oh, sorry, Natasha. I didn’t mean to.... I just thought, since I was passing by….” Jesus, he was sounding like a school kid. He drummed his fingers on the marble counter top and averted his eyes from the increasing scrutiny of the concierge.
“Come up. It’s just an old friend of mine, Sheila.”
Sheila? A girlfriend? Harry grinned in relief. Natasha’s voice was warm in his ear. “Please. Come up and have a glass of wine with us.”
“Oh, no, I shouldn’t interrupt.”
“Harry, I insist.”
He sighed in relief. “Maybe just for a moment.” Anything to blot out the goddamned Jeep. Anything to forget his empty house. A chance to see Natasha, if only for a moment. “All right. And thanks.”
In the elevator, he thought of his first visit to her apartment, also on short notice, and their first lovemaking.
When he knocked, he heard muffled voices behind the door and then she answered, drawing him inward with her smile. Her dark hair, shining in the light, fell free to her shoulders. Always enveloped by her intimacy, he reached out to kiss her, but she stepped back and squeezed his hand. Her smile tightened with some remote and unrecognizable tension.
“Come in, Harry. I want you to meet my friend.”
He had known Natasha for over a year and had never met any of her friends. He welcomed the chance to learn more of the woman he loved.
Seated demurely on the chesterfield, Sheila rose to greet him. She looked younger in her summery dress and, despite her mass of red hair, more waif-like and unassuming than he had expected. By contrast, Natasha radiated vibrancy and life, as if she carried the energy for both of them. An interesting combination. Had he expected them to mirror each other? He was surprised that he had any preconceptions at all.
Pleasantries were exchanged. Natasha poured the wine and gave Harry a glass. She returned to her seat by Sheila on the chesterfield. Harry glanced about and then sat in an armchair.
“Sheila and I go back to high school days,” Natasha began. “You remember last summer when I was away, Harry? Sheila was my traveling companion.”
Harry nodded agreeably and sipped his wine, but could think of no reply.
“Sheila does the appraisal work at our office.”
“Really?” said Harry. “What training do you need to become an appraiser, Sheila?”
“Oh, there are courses you take for what seems like years.” Sheila began. “That way, you can get accredited while still holding down a job.”
“Have you worked together long?”
“Oh, ages!” Sheila laughed and then glanced at Natasha. “Or at least it seems that way, doesn’t it, Natty?”
Natty? A pet name? Ridiculous! Suddenly, Harry wished the tiresome woman gone. Why was he compelled to cross-examine her?
After the Jeep, he had only wanted Natasha’s comfort and concern. “Here’s a funny story for you,” he began. “You know those monster Jeeps? People drive them like they own the road.” The two women nodded in unison. “Tonight, I was going west along St. Clair, and one pulled up behind me. I tapped my brakes to get him off my tail.”
Concern crossed Natasha’s face.
Caught up in his story, Harry smacked his hands together. “He pulled up beside me and scraped the side of my car.”
“On purpose?” Sheila asked, wide-eyed.
Harry ignored her.
Natasha set down her glass. “Harry, are you hurt?”
He was pleased at her concern.
“Didn’t you get his license plate?” Sheila chimed in. “Or call the police?”
Harry shook his head in annoyance. Was she questioning his competence? What was the point in calling the police when the Jeep was long gone? His first thought had been Natasha.
Natasha frowned. “What about your car, Harry?”
“It’s okay. No dents, just a few nasty paint scrapes.” He searched her eyes for…what? Love, communication, intimacy?
“What about the insurance company?” Sheila persisted.
Harry stared at her.
Natasha nodded to Sheila. “Pour Harry some wine, will you, darling?”
Sheila rose to get the bottle.
His head was spinning just slightly. “No, please. I really must go,” he said.
Sheila retreated to sit beside Natasha.
“Are you all right to drive, Harry?” Natasha asked.
No ‘darling’ for me, he thought distractedly. Frustrated, he rose. “Of course, I’m fine. But I must be off.”
Natasha followed him to the hallway. He turned to take her in his arms, but she held his hand. He wanted to kiss her good night. She stood to one side and Harry could see Sheila’s shadow on the wall, just over her shoulder. He touched her cheek. She gave him a brief kiss and said, “Call me, Harry. Soon.”
Any chance for intimacy was gone. She held open the door for him and, as he turned to say good-bye, the two women waved together and closed the door. He hurried to catch the elevator. Grumbling, he reminded himself they had agreed to give each other time and space to let it happen, to let their love grow, but it was damned frustrating. Of course, she was entitled to have her friends, but….
When Harry had left, Natasha began washing the wine glasses. Sheila sat at the kitchen counter.
“So that’s Harry Jenkins, is it?”
“Yes.” Natasha busied herself with the coffee pot.
“Well, I don’t mind so much, darling, if that’s the competition.” Sheila gave a short laugh.
For Natasha, the situation was becoming intolerable. A part of her came silently screaming to the surface. Caught between the two people I love! Sheila was demanding she choose between them. Of course, she didn’t deserve to be kept in limbo, but Natasha did not know herself what she wanted. Sheila hid her hurt behind joking, sarcastic comments, but her sniping was stretching the limits of Natasha’s sympathy.
Natasha was suddenly suffused with recollection. Why her, my mother, at this moment, she wondered?
She remembered herself at thirteen. From behind the door to the cellar, she had heard her mother and Aunt Mila talking in the kitchen. Mother had a job at the factory on the line, but for two years, she had taken bookkeeping courses at night.
Once I get into the front office, her mother used to say eagerly, life will be better.
But that day her mother spoke angrily at first. “What do you expect me to do, Mila? My boss, Mr. Blackstone, has got a gun to my head.”
“And he wants you to sleep with him?”
“Yes!” Natasha could hear the tears in her mother’s voice. “He said if I didn’t, he wouldn’t let me off the line and up to bookkeeping.”
“What are you going to do?”
The chairs in the kitchen screeched backward on the linoleum floor. There was such a long pause, Natasha thought they had left, but then Mother had said, “What do you think? I’m not going to be trapped for the rest of my life.”
“But, honey! You can’t let….”
“Nothing needs to be done. I’ve got the job already.”
“Of course, I did.”
“Oh, Renee! You poor kid!”
After a long silence, her mother said softly, “Once we’d done it, his eyes looked so sad and ashamed, like being him just wore him down.”
Mila was aghast. “You felt sorry for him?”
“No, not really. But I can see how loneliness can make you crazy.” Afterwards, we talked a bit, sitting on the bed in the motel. He was living all alone there because his wife had run off with the kids.”
Natasha sighed as she served the coffee. When you see people that way, she thought, what can you do? One person needs this, another that. Is there no middle ground for me?
Returning to the chesterfield, Sheila said, “You’re going to have to make up your mind, Natasha.”
“Please! Let’s not get into that tonight,” Natasha said wearily as she sank back into the cushions.
Sheila spoke confidently. “In the real world, you do have to make choices, honey.”
Natasha closed her eyes and thought, Why can’t she understand that I love both of them?