Suddenly, There Was Harold

2

Henry was a flower. Or at least he thought he was. A tall tulip with long, slender green leaves, broad speckled white petals and a soft brown sticky patch in the middle for a nose.

One of the things he liked best about being a flower was that he could listen in freely to conversations without being detected. He thought of himself as a sort of spy. A kind of undercover man, lying about, incognito, watching and listening and taking in what he otherwise could not.

Like today. He was perched in a creamy white vase and could overhear Mrs. Hutchins telling her next-door neighbor about how unfaithful her husband had been.

“He’s so insufferable,” she was saying, wiping away a tear, to Mrs. Broome who gave her a look comprised of both pity and shock.

They were sitting on the couch–an embroidered sofa imported all the way from Belgium–sipping freshly brewed tea and eating strawberry scones. He could have been eating strawberry scones as well but instead he was sitting surreptitiously in a vase of freshly decanted water.

“You would think he was still single the way he behaves. Still sowing his oats. Still trying to figure out where to park his bike. Still anything but a man with a wife and marital responsibilities.”

Yes, Henry thought. I can listen and I can see. Providing I am in the right position at the right time.

Which, of course, he was at that particular moment, because he could see Mrs. Hutchins fold over in despair on the couch, could witness Mrs. Broome take her hand and pat it ever so gently as she tried, unsuccessfully, with a disconcerted look and a subdued sigh, to comfort her, as she waited anxiously for the first opportunity to take her leave without seeming too unfashionably rushed.

Henry was sad for a moment. Then he smiled: brightened really, under the soft sunlight that slanted through the slatted blinds and warmed him ever so gently. Which, for a flower, amounted to a giant grin. What better way, he thought to himself, to gather the deepest secrets, to hear the details of Mrs. Hutchins’ life, to be with her always,  than to be a bright, sunny flower, standing ever so innocent, erect in a white porcelain vase, set prominently in the center of a fine walnut table in a room with an expensive Persian carpet, a portrait and a still-life hanging on opposite ends of the room and a large, crystal chandelier that cascaded down from the medallioned ceiling and hung suspended magically in the air above him . What better way, indeed, than to listen in to Mrs. Hutchins’ conversations without her ever even suspecting.

 

Except that Henry, whose name was Albert, or could have been, had always wanted to be a dog. Or a furry little cat. Or a bird in a cage where he could flit around all day and then, if he wanted, when Mrs. Hutchins opened the cage door to feed him or to fill his water cup, he could quickly make his escape and fly off, out and up, swiftly and smoothly, straight through an open door or a window left carelessly ajar, out into the wide open air where she could never catch him. Then he could move about freely from yard to yard, soar up high into the sky and swoop back down, flutter from roof to roof, from window to window, as he pleased, and listen in, or peek through lacy bedroom curtains and watch the goings-on in the very privates of people’s lives. In the very privates of Mrs. Hutchins’ deeply deprived life.

So one morning, bright and early, while Mrs. Hutchins was still asleep or, at least, still in bed, awake and wondering about the whereabouts of her unpredictable, incomprehensible husband, Henry or Albert up and transformed himself, gently pivoted himself against the edge of the porcelain vase that had been his home for an eternity it seemed (for being a flower had its drawbacks, seeing as one could not move about) and turned into a fine-looking butterfly–for despite his desire to be a dog or a cat or a fluttering bird, he had wanted to maintain his startlingly good looks, and so this was the perfect compromise–knocking over the vase at the very last minute as he catapulted himself up into the air, at the very moment Mrs. Hutchins entered the room, having been awakened by a certain something–an odd feeling she had, by an uncertain sound she thought she heard–and then, just as suddenly, being startled by the crash of the vase breaking against the ceramic tiles which had been imported all the way from Italy and had been arranged, ever so skillfully, by the Korean artisan who had come all the way from the other side of town to carefully arrange them around Mrs. Hutchins’ dining room table, to please Mrs. Hutchins so she could boast boisterously to her friends and acquaintances.

“Harold?” she called out, rushing into the room in her silken nightgown.

But there was no answer. Only the odd silence of a missing flower and the glittery scattering of broken porcelain on the Italianate floor which she now had to tiptoe around in her red Chinese slippers to avoid getting cut.

 

The trouble was that Albert, now that he was free, now that he was a big butterfly with handsome yellow wings edged with the boldest black, missed Mrs. Hutchins. Though he would never admit to it. Though he would never tell her that, not directly, if ever a butterfly could tell a woman what he feels. For he had been with Mrs. Hutchins for many a year. Had watched her change from a beautiful bashful bride into the stunningly jaded woman she had now become. He had done this first as a wallboard when, stiff and silent, he would watch her dress and undress, then as a plush linen sheet–one hundred percent Egyptian cotton–on which she would repose like a portrait with her naked, perfumed body, then finally as a fine-toothed comb when, unbeknownst to her, he was able to inhale her scent, to secretly caress her smooth, silky long black hair.

But as the years meandered on, things began to go flat, and Mrs. Hutchins’ easy smile gradually became pursed. Her gentle laugh, which had always come spontaneously, especially when she was surprised by an unexpected gift or delighted by a certain way Harold (who did he think he was, anyway?) came up from behind and kissed her on the head–this effortless laugh eventually became silenced. Or, rather, strained and edgy, like the sound of a taut string on an old, neglected violin when being tuned by a not-quite-so-skilled musician.

Perhaps it was because she soon discovered she could not have children. Or maybe because Harold (damn that Harold, always messing about, always doing something to upset poor Mrs. Hutchins) eventually stopped paying her much mind as happens when marriages begin to unwind and then fade like paint under the hot bright sun. For eventually, Harold could no longer make her out, at least not as crystal clear as he once could, could no longer see himself even, hidden behind all that lather as he shaved each morning, could no longer detect the contour of her fine lips, the tone of her fair skin or the shape of her silhouette against the moonlight as his feelings shifted, then disappeared, and he could no more distinguish between day and night, between white and black, between what was real in his life and what wasn’t than he could between the particular manifestation he had become and the one that had just preceded. It was as if he had developed an emotional myopia, as if all the things around him, including Mrs. Hutchins, had slowly lost their crisp, fine-edged outlines and gradually morphed into a milky murkiness.

And there wasn’t much he could do about it (he being Albert who soon decided to call himself Ralph). After all, for all intents and purposes, he was not alive. After all, he was just an inanimate object. Lying about in her room. Watching her adoringly. Wishing he could break out of his hard waxen shell. Riding stiffly through her thick black hair. Wanting more than anything to love her the way she was meant to be loved. The way he himself wanted to be loved.

That’s when he took to getting anxious. That’s when things began to break up, to crumble like dried bread, to disintegrate like fine splinters of rosewood accumulating on the floor from a carpenter’s lathe or tiny fragments left over from the workings of a leatherman’s awl.

 

So one morning, years after he had been a worn panel on the fading wall, later, when he had given up his life as a flower, when being a butterfly no longer held any appeal, when his desire to be a dog or a cat or an exotic bird had lost its elusive, evanescent grip, Oliver–for he had decided to assume this wonderful name, this broad, rich moniker, imbued with a rich sense of staid stability and tried tradition–decided to divide himself up. It was a strategy meant to maximize his presence, a way of guaranteeing that he would always be in the right place at the right time. So he could watch Mrs. Hutchins no matter where she went. So he could always be with her. Only, he would be like an invisible angel, and she would never know.

It started when she decided to renovate the house. The interior decorator, a suave woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a thick notepad she carried around with her as she surveyed the house, taking notes and making sketches–mere doodling, Oliver noted jealously, mere scribble-scrabble limned on a crisp pad of paper and meant to take Mrs. Hutchins’ mind off of him–as she talked to Mrs. Hutchins about this idea and that–leveraging her skills and imposing her views–an artist herself who had flown in clear across the country from San Francisco for the occasion, suddenly suggested geometrics. True, she told Mrs. Hutchins, it was the latest craze. True, like all fads, it would most definitely fade. But it had its basis in the natural world, was buttressed by history, by the long line of artists and artisans who had come before, whose work was backed up by circles and squares, triangles and trapezoids, octagons and spheres.

Ms. Hutchins had no idea what she was talking about–feigned interest, really,  and a bit of knowledge–but she immediately agreed, for she needed a radical change in her life, desired, more than anything else, to rid herself of any vestige of her husband (her former husband, she had wanted to say, for she had not seen nor heard from him in years and assumed he had just gone by the wayside, had disappeared like a bubble in the air or like a thin scrim of smoke dissipating into the vast, vast universe).

“Yes,” she said, her smile bursting into an arc. “Geometrics. We will go with geometrics.”

And so geometrics it was. And Oliver, who now became Lawrence–now there was a name, he thought, he wished ever so much that his name had been Lawrence, could imagine himself more as Lawrence than anyone else–became a series of circles on a modern specimen of a rug, a rectangular black and white polka-dot carpet which now completely covered the Italianate floor.  And his eye transformed into a sphere of a chandelier that hung suspiciously over a parallelogram of a table. And his arms, long and fluted, turned into slender cylindrical lamps set precariously on the floor on either side of a cubic couch.

“Lovely,” the interior decorator exclaimed in her vague voice as she collected her handsome fee (though it was not quite as handsome as Henry or Albert or Ralph or even Oliver, not nearly as handsome as even Harold himself, Lawrence thought) and closed the door behind her, leaving Mrs. Hutchins in a house that seemed as strange to her as the husband she could not seem to shake from her system.

And she sat down on the quadrilateral armchair and surveyed her new landscape, burst suddenly into tears, tears that drizzled down like a sudden shower onto the rim of shapes Lawrence had become. And he was delirious with sorrow, and he soon became entangled in the very weight of Mrs. Hutchins’s woeful weeping.

 

Then, one day, something changed. Something subtle and indefinable. Something Lawrence–who woke up David that day, who was now so convoluted he could barely flounder–something he could not quite put his finger on. Something Mrs. Hutchins detected through a small window in her life and an ancient glow that slowly filtered in. Something soft and elusive like a brief snowflake or a chink of light caught up in the chance twist of a crystalline kaleidoscope.

Perhaps it was the way the sun had risen that day.  Or the fact that Mrs. Hutchins had decided, on a wishful whim, to arrange a vase full of cut flowers from her well-kept garden, flowers which stood now in tall, wispy silhouettes and which she tried desperately to variegate. And as she did so, there was a dreamy look in her eye, a distant wistfulness that beckoned back to bolder beginnings.

Mrs. Hutchins surrendered to the moment she had become, submitted herself to the moment that really had become her. Draped in despair on the triangular kitchen chair, she surveyed the squares and circles that made up her room, tragically traced the trapezoid her life had assumed.

“Harold,” she called into the vacuum that encircled her. “Harold. Are you there?”

“Harold,” she cried, raising her voice and clutching at her tears. “Why don’t you answer?”

“Harold,” she wept, surveying the room from the corner of her eye, taking stock of each nook and cranny, of each fascicle that constituted the texture of her very convex life.

Then, peering into nothingness, she said, “I wish you had talked to me, Harold.”

“Harold,” she said, wiping the nervousness from her brow, “I wish you had told me that you loved me. Or didn’t. Or something to that effect.”

And she leaned her round face into the square of her open palm, and a tear fell from her eye like a burst of aching amber burnished under the opulence of the oval sun.

Then, suddenly, there was Harold. Suddenly, through all the circles and squares, David appeared, and then Lawrence and then Oliver, and, gradually, Ralph became Albert became Henry, and Harold had an inkling, and Mrs. Hutchins looked around and vaguely perceived him, distinguished his imprecise presence through the sharp compass of her jeweler’s eye, through all the manifestations he had assumed throughout his long, lonesome life as an object. And she measured his imperfections against the geometry of her soul, calculated the distance from his obtuse love to the very radius of her diametric need.

“Harold,” she cried. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Slowly, she bent down. Slowly, she gathered Harold up or tried, tentatively collected the ambiguous fragments of him–the squares, the circles, the trembling triangles–slipped them over her uncertain hand like forbidden jewels, snaked them up her outstretched arm like a diamond bracelet that slithered all the way to the acute angle her slender elbow made.

Then, all at once, Harold decided that enough was enough. He had had his fill of all these changes. He had had enough of being circuitousness, of assuming the rigid crook of a right angle, of being a solid circle with no hole in the middle through which to fall. He wanted to be more fluid, more relaxed, more anything than the changeling he had so desperately become.

And he stood there before his wife like an ancient statue, salvaged from the brittle ruins of time, fragile and naked, stark as life and vague as death, as if the chrysalis of his being had suddenly shed its comforting cocoon, as if time had suddenly stopped and he was now living in that one intense second that made all the difference in the world.

Mrs. Hutchins waded through a jumble of tears and broken breaths, calmed her quaking nerves and quietly said: “You’ve been—,” stopping herself and looking longingly at him.

“Yes,” he answered.

“All along,” she said, in a puff of hope and a burst of shame. “You’ve been filled with me.”

“Yes,” he replied. “I’ve been filled with you.”

And his voice trembled with silence. And his brow wrinkled into a Gordian knot. And he stared quietly at the ground, hunched in an arch of guilt, consumed by a hollow of sorrow that only the lone crow cawing in the distant distance could fully comprehend.

“Harold,” she sighed.

She was staring at the carpet, gaping at the raging lamps.

“I don’t know what to say.”

She picked up a fragile ornament from the coffee table–a glass elephant she had purchased once on an imaginary trip to Africa–and let it crash silently to the ground.

Harold peered through the brim of his eye, shuffled through the fragments of his convoluted life and let the pieces sliver all around him.

That day, all the tears in the world tumbled from the sky.

That day, all the leaves that die in autumn, all the snowflakes that melt from the wintry heavens, all the sunlight that trickles down and bathes the world with its gentle sallow light accumulated in the spot where they now stood–a man and a woman–on a geometric carpet, which covered completely an Italianate floor, which stood in a house designed by a German architect, constructed of stone brought over all the way from Bruges.

 

Harold and Mrs. Hutchins lived verily ever after after that. After that, that is, they lived as validly as could be expected, as two people could eventually live after surviving a love of such myriad proportions, a love which imbued the very nooks and crannies of the venerable house where they managed to virtually live.

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Source: Cool Wallpaper

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About Author

Mike Maggio has published fiction, poetry, travel and reviews in Potomac Review, The Montserrat Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The Northern Virginia Review,  The L.A. WeeklyThe Washington City Paper, Beltway Quarterly, Pig Iron, DC Poets Against the War and others. His books include Your Secret is Safe With Me (Black Bear Publications, 1988), Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996), Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, 2001) and deMOCKcracy (Plain View Press, 2007). Forthcoming work includes a poetry chapbook, Haunted Garden(Pudding House Publications) and a short story collection, The Keepers (March Street Press). He is an assistant adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College and a graduate of George Mason University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. He lives in Herndon, Virginia with his wife and children. His web site is www.mikemaggio.net.

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