Henry (no middle name or initial) Smith was an ordinary man with an ordinary name. Some might even say his name was extraordinary because of its very ordinariness. His entire life, too, had been ordinary at best, with a few minor triumphs and many major defeats. And now there was old age.
It wasn’t even the pain inhabiting his body that was the worst of it; he’d been coping well enough with that, and it held few surprises. Rather, it was the used-to-be’s, the could-have-beens, the never-mores, and there was no easy pill or shot for them. All of these thoughts settled over him once again, like dust over something broken and abandoned, as the subway clattered north toward Manhattan.
At the Eighty-Sixth Street station, Henry climbed to the street level, one step at a time, leaning heavily on his cane and the handrail. A taxi took him the last few blocks to Fifth Avenue, where there were more stairs—a vast sweep of granite rising from the sidewalk. Past the third landing, the museum sprawled in Beaux Arts grandeur across four city blocks.
Henry had come to see the King Tutankhamun exhibit, featured in the arts section of the day’s Times. He should have stopped first to ask about an alternative entrance with an escalator or elevator, but he was too impatient, or maybe too prideful. By the time he had reached the second landing, his worn-out knees were making crunching sounds, and his back ached just above his right buttock. It was nearly noon, and the usual lunchtime sunbathers were already gathering on the steps. They all seemed to be watching him.
At some indeterminate time, he was running across rolling fields, knees and elbows pumping in a perfect synchrony of motion and grace, running for the pure joy of running. At the crest of a hill, the terrain dropped off sharply into a deep glen with wooded slopes, a stream rushing along the bottom, and small rectangles of freshly tilled soil on either bank. He stretched his arms full width, launched himself, and rode the thermals, soaring high into the sun, then wheeling and spiraling down down down. When he awoke in the middle of the night, his heart was galloping furiously . . .
. . . just as it was now. Henry leaned against the base of one of the four pairs of pillars at the museum’s main entrance until his breathing eased. Then he went inside the great hall and paid the optional senior admission.
In his previous visits, he had received a small tin button with a tab that crimped onto the edge of a pocket or lapel. The buttons came in different colors for each day of the week, and he had compulsively filled a glass jar with them over the past forty years. But this was his first visit in a long time—three or four years at least—and now an inelegant paper stick-on label replaced the buttons as a ticket of admission. Henry lamented this change. The cashier had a ready answer: the price of metals, like that of everything else, had gone up.
The exhibit he had come to see was all the way across the main floor, and he needed to stop and rest before going on. The great hall swarmed with visitors, and all the wooden benches were filled except for a space barely wide enough for his thin frame. He squeezed in with a mumbled apology and perched on the edge of the seat, knees pressed tightly together. No one gave an inch on either side. But as people came and went, he worked his way back, a little at a time, until he had his fair share of the bench.
He was feeling irritable after the day’s less-than-perfect start. The swirling crowds reminded him of a throng of movie extras mindlessly rehearsing their roles on a sound stage. Even the stately domes and sweeping arches of the hall were weighted with gloom. And although he had originally planned to rest only briefly, now he was reluctant to give up his hard-won seat.
Lonely people must learn to amuse themselves in creative ways. When Henry was alone in public places, he often amused himself by casting passersby as literary characters. The museum offered good hunting: Raskolnikov, Lolita, Prynne, Caulfield, Kurtz. The role of Don Alonso Quijano he reserved for himself.
But eventually the ebb and flow of people and the background thrum of voices numbed him. His mind drifted, and he lost track of time. He dozed, awoke, dozed again, for what may have been minutes or hours—until a child nearby, indignant over some real or imagined affront, startled him with a series of shrill staccato shrieks. As if in sympathetic resonance, other children soon took up the cry, tentatively, then building to a crescendo. His patience with children had once been exemplary, but now he waited tensely for someone to impose discipline.
Henry was wide-awake now, and a bright speck of color across the hall caught his eye. It was a red hat, bobbing above the crowd like flotsam on a choppy gray sea, and drifting as if borne by a gentle wind or current. Occasionally it dipped briefly out of sight, and he would hold his breath until it resurfaced. The hat mesmerized him. He tuned out the children and concentrated on tracking its progress.
As the hat drew closer, its owner began to take form. It was a young girl (or, as he quickly corrected himself, a woman—the term that girls of her generation seemed to prefer). She was perhaps in her early twenties, tall and graceful, with the long, easy stride of a runway model. She wore a simple, form-fitting white dress with a modest neckline and a hem cut well above the knees, and white sandals with a moderate heel, and she carried an oversized white bag. Crowning her outfit was the hat, wide-rimmed, feathery, more or less circular, which she wore jauntily cocked. It was a deep, rich red, a panic button red, a fire extinguisher red. The reddest red he could have imagined.
Her artless seductiveness unsettled Henry in a way he had long forgotten. He calculated that, barring a last-minute change of course, she might eventually pass directly in front of him, and he felt a sudden compulsion to catch her attention, to assert his presence. The notion was absurd, of course. Henry was clearheaded enough not to expect anything to come of it, not even the most ephemeral of flirtations. He wasn’t sure exactly what he expected. He searched for just the right words. Something casual but sincere, perhaps subtly flattering. Something, if not profound or even elegant, at least not mawkish. Most important, something that would draw neither ridicule nor pity.
He thought back to how he would have started a conversation with a pretty stranger when he was young. But those were simpler times, and self-introductions were much less complicated. Girls were less suspicious, less wary. And with luck and a little chemistry, even the most uninspired opening line might serve.
The Coney Island boardwalk baked in the sun. Henry was with Willie, his best friend since grade school, and Beth was with a girlfriend who reminded him of a goose. His T-shirt was dappled with sweat, but Beth looked comfortably cool in her white jeans, a plain white blouse with the corners knotted in front, and a bright red kerchief around her neck. He never noticed what her friend was wearing.
“I have dibs on the one with the red kerchief,” Henry whispered to Willie. And as they approached the girls, he quickly turned back the hands on his new Hamilton wristwatch—his parents’ high school graduation gift, with ”Success!” engraved on the back.
“I must have forgotten to wind my watch this morning,” he said to Beth in a rush of courage. “Do you have the time?”
Beth stifled a giggle, and her friend rolled her eyes. “I’m not wearing a watch,” Beth finally answered, and offered her bare wrist as evidence. He couldn’t think of a follow-up line, and after an awkward silence, the girls were starting to move away.
“Wait, wait!” he cried, and blurted a full confession of his clumsy ruse. (Weeks later, Beth admitted that, after her initial negative impression of him, it was that earnest apology that charmed her.) Willie and Henry spent the rest of the day with the girls, riding the Cyclone Coaster, Parachute Jump, and Steeplechase and pulling wads of cotton candy from a cone they all shared. He fixed that day in his mind.
Henry’s first gift to Beth was a huge stuffed purple elephant that he won at the dime toss that day. It was an impossible feat. The dime had to land squarely within one of the red dots, which were barely larger than the dime itself. More often than not, the coin would slide or roll off the table into the collection pit. He said a silent prayer before making the winning toss, with just the right amount of backspin.
Henry had stopped praying long ago.
Unlike Willie, who became a politically well-connected attorney in Washington, Henry remained in his old Brooklyn neighborhood, within a few blocks of where he was born, throughout its decades of decline and recent stirrings of gentrification. He earned a commercially useless Master of Fine Arts degree from City college and spent the next forty-three years at a large Manhattan book-publishing house, starting as a proofreader and working his way up to promotional copywriter in the textbook department. He neither loved nor hated his job.
When a consulting firm hired by the publisher recommended “confronting new opportunities by streamlining resource management to maximize internal synergies” and cited “long-term employees who obstruct change,” a sympathetic young secretary in Human Resources smuggled a copy of the report to Henry and discreetly suggested that he consult a lawyer. But he shrugged his shoulders. The decision had been made for him, and he almost felt a sense of relief.
He had lost touch with Willie over the years. Now he wondered where his old friend was, whether he was still practicing law, whether he was still alive. And Beth was slipping away from him just a little each day. The graceful curve of her neck and shoulders and the morning scent of her skin were still vivid in his mind, as was the sultry purr of her voice. But her face was fading like an old color snapshot left out in the sun . . . .
The girl had stopped for an agonizingly long time to talk to someone, perhaps another admirer, but now she was approaching again. And the cleverest remark Henry had come up with was “You light up the hall with your lovely hat.” It was unoriginal and pedantic, but it would have to do. Time was running out.
He hurriedly planned the final details of his adventure. He would have to concentrate on speaking clearly and loudly enough. A stumble or stammer would be the ultimate humiliation. And his timing would have to be split-second perfect. He would begin when the girl was precisely three strides away, no more, no less, and end just as she was directly in front of him so his last few words wouldn’t dissipate in her wake, and so he could gauge her reaction by her face. He rehearsed the phrase over and over in his mind: “You light up the hall with your lovely hat. You light up the hall with . . . .”
He didn’t realize he was forming the words with his lips and sounding them under his breath until he noticed that the severe-looking matron sitting next to him was edging away and eyeing him with a mixture of fear and revulsion. He caught himself and lowered his eyes, focusing on the handle of his cane.
Had she made out what he was saying? He didn’t think so. She probably assumed he was just having an earnest conversation with an imaginary friend. But what would she have thought if she had heard? No doubt she would have taken him for an old fool at best, and a depraved old fool at worst, as indeed would everyone else within earshot. And he hadn’t even given careful thought to what the girl might think. Her flamboyant hat had convinced him that she thrived on attention, but now he was having second thoughts. What if she took offense, or felt threatened? What if she complained about him to a security guard? You are an old fool, Henry reproached himself. A very old fool.
She was just a few yards away, a few feet, then straightaway in front of him—and she was magnificent. Her dark hair fell loose and straight below her shoulders, and her face—almond eyes, finely sculpted nose, well-defined cheekbones, proud chin, full lips slightly parted as if in anticipation—could have graced the cover of Vogue or Elle. Just a touch of schoolgirl innocence tempered her self-assurance.
He abandoned all caution and started to speak, but the words curdled in his throat, and only a barely audible croak escaped. She turned toward him as she passed and, without slowing her pace, flashed an incandescent smile. Then she was taken by the crowd.
What had just happened? What did her smile mean? Was it conscious or reflexive? One thing Henry was certain of: it was intended specifically for him. But then, she might have smiled the very same smile at a helpful museum guide, or an untethered toddler that strayed underfoot, or even a service dog lying protectively at its master’s feet. It was a smile that promised everything and nothing.
All this time, he had almost grown to accept his circumstances, or at least to come to terms with them, as one might with a quarrelsome but long-tenured lover. Now that comfortable ritual had been undone.
She would come in the quiet hours of the day, the sleepless hours of the night, her red hat jauntily cocked, and perform her cameo roles, lofty and profane: lighting a candle in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral; waltzing with abandon across the grand ballroom of the Pierre; hand-feeding the squirrels in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park; wheeling a shopping cart down the aisle at Zabar’s . . . .
The crowds in the great hall were thinning, the benches had nearly emptied, and the Egyptian exhibit no longer mattered. Henry’s watch was showing its age: the inscription on the back of its case was worn thin, its crystal was scratched, and an even gray patina covered its dial. But it was still keeping good time, within one or two or three minutes a day, since its last overhaul. It read nearly four o’clock, the start of the cabbie “shift change,” when people are starting to leave work and an unoccupied on-duty taxi is almost impossible to find. It was time to ask about an elevator or escalator down to the street level.
Henry leaned forward to shift his weight, pivoted, and pushed hard off the bench with the heel of one hand while steadying himself with his other hand on his cane. Once he was on his feet, he straightened his back slowly, slowly, until he stood nearly erect.
Alex Markovich has been an editor at several national magazines. His stories have appeared in previous issues of Halfway Down the Stairs and in other literary publications.
© 2015, Alex Markovich