Harold wasn’t yet a teenager when he first had the feeling that a new vista of self-knowledge had just opened up before his inner eye.
It was a Wednesday evening in spring, Youth Night at First Presbyterian, a weekly gathering that Harold had just begun attending now that he had reached the auspicious age of 12. But his usual sense of awkward misfit-hood had driven him to take a stroll around the dark grounds alone.
As he rounded a corner of the building, he heard low murmuring, and he stepped softly on the lawn. There, standing in a shadow against the brick, screened by shrubs, were his 15-year-old brother Glenn and a girl. They were kissing. Their bodies were mashed together from their jean-clad knees to their overlapping noses and their mouths were locked liked leeches on each other’s lips, moving with faint wet sounds.
Harold felt hot blood bloom to his face, and his feet almost turned away of their own accord, but he made them stop. No one could see him blushing here, and he just had to watch. Then, beyond anything imaginable, he saw the girl’s hand take Glenn’s hand and guide it from her waist up to her breast, and as his brother’s fingers squeezed whatever was under that white fabric, both moaned.
Harold’s breath caught, his heart thudded, and he thought he might pass out. Then a light came on in a window nearby, and he ducked and raced silently toward the other side of the church, toward the brightly lit front door, inside which so much safe, wholesome fun was happening. As he ran, he suddenly realized who the girl was. Vicky Lamott, a high school senior, a pretty girl, a popular girl, of whom he was distantly aware because she attended their church, not someone Harold imagined would ever look twice at his goofy sophomore brother. He fervently, generously hoped they weren’t caught, for Glenn was his newfound hero.
Inside, he followed the sound of music to a large room adjacent to the chapel, slipped inside along a back wall, and as his heart slowed down, he watched the crowd of friendly young faces, so familiar, all singing “Kumbaya.” He felt he was not one of them, could never be one of them, separated now and forever by a powerful knowledge dawning in him. What he had seen was what he wanted. That’s all he wanted, ever. He felt unique among all 12-year-olds because he was entirely filled up inside. He had found the definition of his life, the blueprint of his future: this amorphous, slippery vastness that was Love.
Harold’s Essay for 11th Grade English, Which Was Never Handed In, Resulting in a C-Minus for the Semester
On the assigned subject of “Loneliness,” I have had many thoughts. Such as: When you know something that nobody else knows, you could be said to be alone. That’s because you’re aware of your separateness. So maybe that’s what loneliness is—awareness of your own secrets.
“God only knows,” some people might say. I guess He must feel pretty lonely. At least that’s what I’d say if I believed in God, like all my righteous family. But since I don’t, the things I know are all mine. Mine to live with, mine alone.
Most people at this school know about the accident. But I’ve wondered if I would ever tell what actually happened that night. I could hardly bear those horrible days of sitting around in the hospital, I wanted to blurt out a confession so bad. At the funeral I was a blubbering mess, like a sponge being squeezed, but it was for more reasons than anyone might expect.
He could be a real bastard when he was drunk. I mean, most of the time he was a real nice guy, you know, the girls always called him sweet. And it was true, even when he drank too much. But every now and then, I could see that little streak of belligerent asshole show itself. I mean, who knew him better than I did?
So that’s why I have no excuse. I know he never would have hit me or anything. But I caved in when he threatened me, like I’d always done before. First I tried to tell him no, and say how we better get a bus home or something. But he said, “Look, Harry, you little fuck, wait’ll Mom hears what you been doin’ tonight.” He was so plastered his voice was all slurred like he was retarded, but he still knew how to scare me. That was the mean streak. As if he would ever tell Mom, because that would make him as guilty as me. But you know, I was fucked up, how could I think straight?
Nobody was there in the parking lot to hear us. Later, I just told the story that he split without telling me, took off for that girl’s place in the South Valley. But that crazy fucker never even made it up the freeway ramp before he passed out at the wheel. Goddamn him.
I played innocent. Told just enough truth to make a good lie. Made my Mom cry and pray even more when she found out I’d been drinking too, but that’s something that just couldn’t be avoided. I pretended I didn’t know how shitfaced he was.
I never said a word about how I just handed the keys over. And let him drive away. That’s my big fucking secret, so now you know. I am a spineless dickhead lying coward, and my big brother is dead.
The Intellectual Bliss of University Life
In the first week of his junior year of college, Harold had a revelation about what he had been doing, winding his way through the registration maze, chasing elusive professors for add/drop permissions, wrangling cheap textbook deals, bartering for lab time. Sitting in class day after day was merely the filler. It all became clear to him: The important life lesson to be learned was not about the principles of Cartesian dualism, nor the fundamentals of coding in C++, nor the finer points of communications management. It was all about how to work the system to get what you need.
Enlightened, he set out chasing his degree with new zest, like a baby after a cookie.
Harold surprised himself by becoming a smoker again. It had been years ago that he’d given it up, but now the world was changing, and he was changing with it. His proclivity had never been for tobacco; that was an addiction he just couldn’t relate to: the stale ashtray breath, the butts everywhere, the promise of cancer. The smoking habit he was resurrecting these days was an old teenage penchant for pot, an almost-forgotten marijuana jones. And although he felt oddly childish now as he sucked loudly on a joint, sitting alone with loosened tie in the living room of his own suburban ranch house, he nevertheless inhaled with great enthusiasm and a flamboyant flourish of the smoking match.
The kids were in bed; as usual, he had waited a full hour before lighting up, to be absolutely sure they were asleep. He worried that his daughter, a much-too- bright 8-year-old, was savvy to his law-breaking, but he had no real evidence. Nothing to require a change of behavior, not yet.
Earlier today, after he’d picked up his 5-year-old son from the sitter’s house and they were driving home, the radio was playing a song with the lyric, Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you. It sent Harold into glum thoughts about his wife, and he was surprised when his son said, “This song makes me feel sad.” Harold made sudden cartoon-growl sounds. He reached across the seat and tickled the boy until he surrendered a reluctant giggle.
A week ago, Harold had spent an evening at his wife’s apartment downtown, helping her assemble a prefab bookcase. Afterward, they drank wine together and listened to music, and he tried to nuzzle her neck and murmur something sweet in her ear. She ignored the advance, tossed her hair, and moved across the room to wipe an invisible dust particle from her new shelves. Then, in just a couple of sentences, she managed to make casual references to three different male friends of hers, men that Harold had never met. One of them was a hip young photographer from somewhere in Eastern Europe, with whom she had spent several recent weekends, modeling for photo shoots in the farmlands and backwoods to the west, three hours away. They had slept in roadside motels, in the same room. It was a low-budget project, she had told Harold.
He was aware of how it might be discussed by the photographer and his artsy academic cronies. It was Art: shadowy black-and-white studies in which the Human (Harold’s wife’s) Form (nude) is radically recontextualized (posed melodramatically) within a milieu of metaphorical decay (dilapidated old barns), symbolizing the devolution of fin-de-siècle Western man (whatever).
“Just work,” was her stock phrase whenever Harold inquired, in his bewildered-becoming-bitter way, about her life. She would jump to defense: “Oh right, my friends are these losers who are, like, so desperate, they can’t keep their hands off the old mom with stretch marks.” Or, “Some people don’t think everything’s some sleazy soap opera, you know.” Her consummate skill with a sarcastic put-down never failed to shut him up in an instant, handing all the ugliness of suspicion back into his own upturned palms.
It was nearing six months now since she had lived at home. They never used words like “temporary separation.” She wanted to “find herself,” she had said. But he wondered, couldn’t they do it together?
Tonight was just like every other night. The TV was on, and Harold sat directly in front of it, with the sound low so as not to wake the kids. Staring glassy-eyed at the screen, he worked his way up half the joint, until everything slowed to a stop. The tip’s smoldering glow went dark in his relaxed fingers. He fantasized about being 20 again, about things that had never happened and would never happen, about living with his wife in her bohemian apartment, going to the university with her, being students together. Being wild, young, free, pursuing ideas and art, hanging out in cafés debating politics, walking the streets after midnight in passionate discourse, with never a thought for mortgages or school lunch.
He imagined making love in her little amber-lit bedroom, their bodies sweaty on summer nights, with the sounds of music and traffic from the street below. Young and in love; or, now, all these years later, not so young, and still in love. Every night he would take a journey, detail by detail, through his sweetest memories of her body, and surrendering to the pulse and fog of the smoke in his brain, he would masturbate. But the night before last, and last night, and again tonight, it wasn’t working. There was simply no response to his visions, no response to his fingers. He sat numbly, staring, feeling only emptiness.
There was no sound from the kids’ rooms. The TV murmured nonsense. He sat still for a long time. Then he took a deep breath, zipped up, struck a match with the big, showy gesture of a stage magician, and lit the joint again.
The Entire Contents of Harold’s First Journal
Oct. 5. Well, families come and families go. Or: Life is shit and then you die. Or: I’ve never lived alone before; might as well try to enjoy it.
I always believed so strongly in the big One, our ultimate indivisibility. What a putz.
Phone’s ringing, probably a lawyer.
Harold sits in his cubicle, typing. He is documenting the functionality of Release 2.3.1 of the Transaction Log Utility. A month ago, when he was still manager of Training and Documentation, his afternoon would have felt infinitely more vital.
The soft gray walls muffle the keystrokes of the programmers and analysts in their cubicles on all sides of him. There is a low susurrus under everything, the processed air circulating endlessly. The windows on the far wall cannot be opened.
Harold’s eyes are locked on the screen as black letters string out against white, under blue and gray bars. Earlier, they grouped sensibly into words and sentences, but now the digital characters have regressed into absurd hieroglyphics as his fingers continue to click in random repetitions of featureless sound on the beige keys. The string of senseless symbols just keeps on rolling out, rolling out. His eyes glaze. His fingers slow. His head nods.
His eyes pop open, his fingers pick up again, another string of gibberish, then a fading, a letting go…
Stars trail in slow motion across a vast night sky. Giant gargoyle silhouettes of gnarled stone wheel across the diamond field of stars. An owl hoots nearby, invisible. Coyotes yip on a distant ridge, the cries of aliens heralding the crescent moon just creeping over the ragged horizon. Sand grits against his skin, the flesh of his cheek. He lies on the ground, sweating, heart pounding like a fist. He knows that he has just been dancing, bare feet in the dirt, whirling madly to a savage drum, naked and shouting under the glittering stars, until, exhausted, he has fallen to the Earth.
Harold snaps open his eyes. His fingers twitch. On the screen in front of him, centered in the monochrome field of lines and squiggles, is a gray rectangle containing words that slowly, dimly enter his conscious understanding.
Error. No help is available here.
He drives. She stares.
The silence is loud with Dionne Warwick, prepsychic, Bacharached thick with strings. The look. Of love. It’s on. Your face. The look. That time. Can’t era-ase.
He drives. She stares out the passenger window. There are no sights to be seen there. On other drives, she has always ignored the view as she speaks and speaks, rubbing fabulously floral-scented lotions on her hands, checking and rechecking her makeup in the visor mirror, talking and talking without pause, all uppercase and exclamation points. But today she is silent, staring, the glass two inches from her nose.
He drives. The suburbs of New Jersey blur past in the blue of evening. Her neck is twisted just a bit too far for comfort, just enough to make it clear to herself and to him that she looks away. Away from him.
He knows why she’s angry. He knows and he sympathizes. He can’t blame her. Any woman would be angry to learn that her husband doesn’t want children with her. The words were never said, and he will never say them, but he knows that she knows, because what else could his behavior mean?
His two kids from his first marriage are difficult enough; why add more pain? This is one part of the swamp like resistance he feels, although he can’t put it into those words. He won’t admit the concept into his awareness because when it comes to his son and daughter, he’s cemented into a defensive posture: a concrete linebacker, ready for a hit. He loves the pair with a blind, helpless devotion, which just adds to the bewilderment he feels every time he attempts a conversation with either of them.
The other part he has the words for, but he can never, never say them. Her continual, escalating criticism of his kids—they are hopeless sociopaths, future criminals, and he’s to blame, he with his sycophantic connection to his malevolent first wife—all this has finally worn a nasty little sore on his invisible innards. It hurts every day, and he has come to the conclusion that, with her, he never wants to be a parent.
Now, the radio blares Dionne and neither of them speak. They are driving home from an aborted journey, a sweet task gone sour. Rather than leaving his sperm sample at the medical lab for a fertility test—the two of them together, all full of romantic hope that the miracle of science could fulfill their cute if unproductive new couplehood—they had instead been humiliated.
“I will not jerk off in their bathroom looking at Penthouse,” he had announced a week ago. “I just won’t do it.” So she had volunteered to help out. She went to the lab, picked up a sterile container, and offered to help him summon up the juices, after which she would deliver the precious vessel back to the lab. But she included a dire warning that the results could be faulty if too much time elapses (“Remember, this Jersey traffic…”) between ejaculation and testing. Feeling guilty in the face of her generosity—after all, she had undertaken all the complicated but inconclusive tests of her own reproductive powers without any help from him—he made an impulsive offer.
“They have evening hours, right?” He hugged her and murmured in her ear, “How about we pretend we’re high school kids fooling around in the car, something we never got to do? We’ll go park in the cemetery next to the hospital, climb in the back seat, do some fun stuff, fill the jar, and scoot for the lab.” He didn’t mention the extra benefit: that his plan would mean he wouldn’t have to take any time off work.
She caught the vision, gave a low laugh and kissed him with a probing tongue and a hip press, and they made a date for the next evening as soon as he got home from the office.
They hadn’t counted on Officer Bronsky making his rounds, cruising slowly through the cemetery at dusk.
How long he stood by the window watching them, they will never know. Just as Harold squirmed and said, “Give me the bottle!” and she raised her face from his lap, Officer Bronsky tapped on the glass with his flashlight. She gasped, they jumped and fumbled with clothing, and Harold groaned as he made a mess on his pants.
The officer’s brusque hand motion constituted an unmistakable command: roll the window down immediately. She reached across Harold and did it.
“This ain’t a motel, folks.”
“We’re a married couple; we’re just...see?” She held up the empty bottle. “We need a sample…” Harold just covered his eyes with his hand.
“This ain’t your bedroom, either. This is a public place. Ever heard of public lewdness?” He pulled out his ticket book, stone-faced. “The judge can tell you all about it. ID, please. From both of you.”
Officer Bronksy showed no trace of a smile, not even a twinkle in his eye, and ever since he handed them the ticket and drove away, they have not spoken.
The look of lo-ove…is saying so much more than just words could ever say…. And what my heart has heard, well, it takes my breath away…
Dionne sings and Harold drives. He wishes they could laugh it all off, but the look on his wife’s face warns him not to try. It is then that the realization comes to him: The end has been reached. There is no more road in front of them. Beyond this day, he can only see himself as alone, a lone man, pathetic and glorious in eternal solitude, and it is with both joy and terror that he rounds the final corner and pulls slowly into their driveway.
The Entire Contents of Harold’s Second Journal
August 3. Here we go again. Kinda nice to be back in the old neighborhood. I always secretly loved urban decay. Harsh. Dangerous. Sexy.
August 4. What am I supposed to learn? Can’t I learn anything? I’m just a damned hamster on a wheel, round and round with the same asshole behaviors. I want a different life.
Right. This is the life you deserve, dickhead.
God help me.
Harold thinks, “I am at death’s door.”
Some time later, he thinks, “The Grim Reaper approacheth.”
Occasional thought-islands surface languidly in a vast fog. He thinks, “Harold Soderquist, prepare to meet your maker.”
He thinks, “Wait! Don’t go into the light!”
He thinks, “What’s going on? Where the hell am I?”
His chest, stomach, back, all the mysteries in the bulky center of him, are abruptly filled with grinding shards of glass. Fishhooks and fisted needles, twisting. Then someone is there at his side and a slow wave caresses him back into featureless mist.
Harold’s torso had received like a lover the thrusts of the sharp, little blade. His flesh had opened without resistance to the piercings, all 11, as if his heart knew what it needed. He will never again see the near-stranger, the one-night stand, the foolish infatuation, the woman who inflicted the wounds, but not because he is dying from them. This death is only imaginary, one of his many wish-fears. She will confess her crime and be sentenced while he lies sleeping, before he has healed and resumed his life, in which she was a momentary, if momentous, detour.
As Harold reclines in white sheets, dozing, he hears his older brother’s voice: “Harry, you gotta wake up, man.”
Glenn is standing at the bedside, throwing Harold a mock scowl while a grin hides on his lips. He is impossibly young, barely 20, his hair a blond tangle, that same old Led Zeppelin cut, his chin scruffy between the long pointed collars of his polyester shirt.
Harold’s eyes feel sleepy. He is mildly curious. “How did you get in here, is it visitation hour?”
“Doesn’t matter. You awake, so we can talk?”
“Yeah, yeah…What’s up?”
Glenn sits on the edge of the bed and leans forward to stare into Harold’s eyes. Harold is aware dimly that this is not Glenn’s normal behavior—much too serious, too fatherly. “Harry,” Glenn says, “I’m so much smarter than before.”
“Okay…” Harold is beginning to feel that something is not right. His mind is a bin of fuzz and he tries to climb out. “Okay…What’s up?”
“John Lennon knew the truth, man: I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
“Glenn, I’m too tired. He was also a walrus. What’re you talking about?”
“It was not your fault. It was just my path.”
Something is noisy, like rustling fabric in Harold’s ears. “I can’t hear you.”
“Yes you can, I’m shouting in your face! Listen!” Glenn leans even closer, close like when they were boys and it was after dinner and Glenn would hold Harold down on the ground and breathe horrible garlic-breath into his nose.
Now Glenn’s soft blue eyes and his mouth surrounded by downy young-man’s whiskers fill Harold’s vision and he’s not shouting at all. His voice is stern but quiet and suddenly very, very clear.
“Harry, I forgive you. That means you forgive yourself. That means you can wake the fuck up!”
Harold wants so, so much to make his big brother proud and happy. He feels a great cry wrench itself up from his guts. “I am, Glenn, I am awake!”
He is sitting up in bed, but nobody is in the room, and there is an icy fire searing through his chest, a buzzsaw slicing him in half. A nurse bustles in as Harold slides down onto the pillow and she babbles cheery gibberish as he slips back into a fathomless, gray absence.
Later, in secret, Harold will remember, and hold to, every word. But for this timeless moment, he drifts in perfect molecular unity, distributed across the interstellar distances between quantum particles, where logical mind has no purchase. Right now, Harold does not even know that his wounds are on the mend; that he has already begun to live by an all-new truth. He is, and was always, whole.
Brent Robison’s “A Partial Catalog of Harold’s Major and Minor Epiphanies” was chosen by juror Abigail Thomas for honorable mention in our 2007 Literary Supplement short story contest.