THE STORY OF HENRY:
CHAPTER AND VERSE
By Elizabeth Gauffreau
When Francis strolled into Carney’s Restaurant for his morning coffee, a newcomer sat at the counter having coffee and doughnuts and reading the morning paper like a regular. Newcomers being rare in town and rarer still at the counter of Carney’s Restaurant, Francis craned his neck to see what paper the man was reading. The Burlington Free Press. A good sign.
Nixon in an election year being too entertaining for anyone to miss, Francis waited until the newcomer had finished the editorial page before introducing himself. “I’m Francis Boudreau. Are you new in town?”
The newcomer nodded, then hesitated briefly before he spoke, as though deliberating over his choice of words. “Henri Parlideau. Henry. I didn’t think I’d get a job this soon, Father. Yesterday was my first day in town.” The newcomer gestured over his left shoulder with his doughnut. “I found an apartment, too. In the Ben Franklin block.”
“It’s good to meet you, Henry,” Francis said. “Where are you working, if I might ask?”
“Bernie O’Brien at The Standard gave me a job as a copy editor.” Henry took a bite of his doughnut, chewed, and swallowed. “I was afraid I was going to have to work for one of the Loeb papers.”
“Bernie’s a good man,” Francis said.
“I don’t know him well,” Henry said. “I just met him yesterday, when he gave me the job.” He grinned, showing square, tobacco-stained teeth. “Do I look that down on my luck?”
“No,” Francis said, “not at all.” He looked at Henry more closely, a man in his mid-fifties, with a strong jaw and iron-gray hair that swept back from his forehead in tight waves. His rumpled wool jacket, too heavy for the warm June morning, smelled of bacon grease.
Henry pulled a blue cigarette packet from his pocket, shook one out, and lit it with a wooden match which he fished out of another pocket. He dropped the match into his empty coffee cup and blew out a stream of tobacco smoke so strong the waitress behind the counter flapped her hand in front of her face and clicked her tongue in annoyance.
“What are you smoking there, Henry, old tires?” Francis said.
Henry chuckled and offered him the pack.
“Galois?” Francis said. “I haven’t seen those since the War. Where did you get them?”
“I just got back from France. After I retired from The Boston Globe, I spent a year looking up my family.” He scraped a fleck of tobacco from his tongue with his little finger. “I’m still thinking in French.”
Francis motioned to the waitress, who grudgingly poured him more coffee. “I tried learning French when I first moved to the North Country, from a French-Canadian nun. But I must have started too late in life. I learned by rote. I never really knew it.”
Henry nodded and tapped his cigarette against the ashtray. “According to the research, that’s true of most people. I’ve been fortunate. Thinking in another language alters one’s perception of reality, you know.”
Francis was about to ask how when the waitress pointedly presented each of them with his check. Henry picked up his own and Francis’s, and paid for them both while Francis was still protesting.
Out on the sidewalk, the mid-morning sun shone hot and bright. Henry took a drag from his cigarette and shrugged off his jacket. “I suppose I don’t need to stand on ceremony in Carney’s Restaurant, do I?”
Francis shook his head. “Ah . . . no.”
Henry motioned toward the Ben Franklin store. “If you’d like, we can continue our conversation at my place. It’s just upstairs.”
Francis looked at his watch. He needed to work on the budget to prepare for a vestry meeting at seven o’clock that evening, although, if he were honest with himself, he could work up the figures with little difficulty, usually in less than an hour. It was working out the presentation of them for the vestry members that was so worrisome. “Do you think we could make it another time, Henry? I have a vestry meeting tonight.”
“Certainly.” Henry slung his jacket over one shoulder and emitted a plume of blue tobacco smoke over the other as he opened the glass door leading to the apartments over the Ben Franklin store. “Apartment lB. You’re welcome anytime.”
Francis did not take Henry up on his offer the following day, as he had hospital calls, or the day after that, as he had counseling appointments, or the day after that, as he had nursing home calls.
When Francis arrived at Apartment lB a week later, the door was half open, clarinet music playing from a radio inside. Francis recognized the tune: “Frenesi” by Artie Shaw. He rapped lightly on the door and pushed it open. The apartment was a large one-room efficiency with a towering ceiling and not a single window, painted an unnatural shade of green that had been popular during the 1930s. An oscillating fan set on a card table looked to be about the same vintage. The entire room was filled with boxes, some opened, some still sealed. In the midst of the boxes stood Henry Parlideau, arms akimbo, stripped to the waist and sweating like a stevedore.
“Come in, come in,” Henry said. “I’m still unpacking my books.”
Francis stood uncertainly in the doorway. “Come in, Francis,” Henry called over his shoulder. “I’ll get us some ice water, and we’ll talk.”
Francis and Henry became friends. They had both grown up in Massachusetts, in suburbs outside of Boston, although, as it turned out to Francis’s surprise, twenty-five years apart, not the fifteen he had initially thought. They had both been in World War II, Francis as an eighteen-year-old private too nearsighted for the infantry, Henry with his knowledge of languages, in the 0SS.
Each morning when they met at Carney’s for coffee and doughnuts, Henry had a new story to tell, a new insight to give, and after a few months, Francis began to confide in him. At times, he told Henry, he truly wondered if he were the wrong pastor for this parish. His congregation could be so mean and petty that he just did not know what to say to them. He related the story of how an Altar Guild member had called him at ten o’clock one Sunday night to berate him for the lack of symmetry of the flower arrangements on the altar during the service that morning. And what had he said to her? He had told her he was sorry.
Sometimes, Francis said, he doubted if he could ever reach them, if he could ever make them understand that the work of the church is to ease the suffering of others. They refused to do any outreach work for the poor, and, what was most confounding, they did not want him to, either. It was undignified, they said, beneath him, beneath them.
Henry would listen and agree with him and then repeat the words Francis said to his children: You must do what you think is right. And his own words would comfort Francis, coming from someone his father’s age, if he had lived, someone who wanted nothing from him, who called him by his given name and didn’t ask for money or for guidance or for surcease of guilt.
Henry’s job lasted less than a year. Then Bernie’s old linotype machine gave out, and he couldn’t afford to keep Henry on. “That’s all right,” Henry said, when he told Francis. “It was just something to pay the rent. I can always go back to my career. I can freelance.”
“Of course, you can,” Francis said. “You’ll never run out of things to write about.”
Henry had to give up the apartment in the Ben Franklin block and take a room at the Quincy Hotel. “I can store some of these books for you, if you like,” Francis said as he helped Henry pack. “I’ve plenty of room at the rectory.”
“Thanks, Francis, but I’d just as soon take them with me, even if I have to leave them packed.”
Six months later, Francis got a call from Kevin Gauthier, the owner of the Quincy, telling him that he was going to evict Henry.
“Why?” Francis said. “If he’s behind in his rent, maybe I can help. How much does he owe?”
“The rent ain’t the problem, Father,” Kevin said. “He set his room on fire this morning. I–”
Francis interrupted him. “What happened? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. He weren’t there when it happened. He hung a wet towel on the wire he’s got strung from that damn radio of his and left the room. The radio was on, and the towel caught afire. This weren’t the first time, Father. He’s had three grease fires in the last two months. I’ve got to evict him, or they’re gonna cancel my insurance. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Will you give me a week to find him another place? I’m coming right over.”
“All right, Father, but he’s gonna have to take his meals out. I’ve got his hot plate.”
When Francis arrived at Henry’s room, the door was open, and he walked in without knocking. The room smelled of smoke and burned plastic. The windows were still open, and the sheaf of typed papers Henry kept on the table next to his typewriter–the article he’d been working on since he’d lost his job–was scattered on the floor. Henry sat at the table with his hands resting on top of the radio. He looked up as Francis entered the room. “I think the fire shorted out my radio.” He took his hands from the top of the radio and twisted one of the dials. “I don’t know what to do.” His face sagged, and for the first time since Francis had known him, he looked his age.
“Do you want me to take it to the shop?” Francis said. “Get an estimate on it?”
“Would you, Francis?”
After Francis carried the radio down the stairs to his car, he took Henry into the dining room and bought him some dinner. As he watched Henry eat, he could imagine him alone in his room, sitting by his shortwave radio for hours, repositioning the makeshift antenna, carefully adjusting the dials, straining against the static and the ebbing and flowing of vowels and consonants to find a language he could remember and understand.
With some difficulty, Francis found Henry another place he could afford, a tiny one-room apartment in a tenement in Richford, where Francis was pastor of a second parish, the apartment seemingly made over from a storeroom, the back street on which the tenement was located having become an enclave of the poor, hidden from the view of tourists passing through town on their way to Jay Peak to ski.
On the day Francis helped Henry pack up his things at the Quincy, Henry gathered the pages of the article he had been working on since losing his job at The Standard, and, sitting on the edgeof the bed, put the pages in order. He then found a blue pencil on his nightstand and read through the pages of the article, stopping every now and again to mark on a page with the blue pencil. When he was finished, he held the sheaf of papers out to Francis.
“Here, Francis, I would like you to read this, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s not quite finished, but I think it’s at the point where it could use a read-through by another set of eyes.”
Francis felt flattered, particularly given the fact that Henry had just bluelined it before giving it to him. “Thank you, Henry,” he said, folding the papers in half and tucking them into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “I would be happy to read it. I’ll look forward to it.”
That night, after the supper dishes had been washed and his wife and children were in bed, Francis pulled the article out of his jacket pocket and began reading. The article was an account of Henry’s last trip to France, with descriptions of obscure little villages, amusing anecdotes of colorful characters, the surprise of incongruous family resemblances, and Henry’s sense of glee throughout his trip that he was so easily able to pass as a native speaker of French. Henry also spent some time describing the numerous cafés he had visited and the conversations he had engaged in. His description of one café seemed so close to Carney’s Restaurant that Francis stopped and reread it, stopping again when he realized that the friendly priest whom Henry was describing could only be himself, right down to his wire-rimmed eyeglasses and vestigial Boston accent. But surely, Francis told himself, it is not an uncommon occurrence for a writer to misplace an image in time, the connections among events, especially the events of one’s own life, sensory and visceral rather than chronological. What did strike Francis as uncommon about Henry’s writing were some decided quirks of grammar and usage–indiscriminate commas, nineteenth-century capitalization, inverted syntax, transposed semicolons and colons–as though he were a schoolboy who had tried the night before a test to make up for weeks of inattention in English class and gotten the rules all jumbled.
Now that Henry was living ten miles away, Francis could no longer stop by when he walked to Carney’s for his morning coffee or when he did his other errands around town. He began stopping in to see Henry once a month, cringing when he realized that he was visiting Henry on the same day he made his monthly calls to shut-ins–emphysema sufferers tethered to oxygen, elderly women crippled with arthritis, and those poor unfortunate souls whose brains were so addled by age they could not be left alone–then in the next moment telling himself that he had not added Henry to his list of shut-ins; he was just visiting an old friend when he had the opportunity, careful planning being a necessity in a household with two adults, two teenagers, and one car.
Each time Francis visited, Henry would spend most of the time preparing coffee for him: running water from the tap into a battered saucepan, centering the pan on the stove burner, measuring coffee grounds into a French press, setting cups, spoons, napkins, and sugar on the table, opening a half pint carton of cream and carefully smelling it before placing it on the table next to the sugar, pouring the boiling water into the carafe, slowly depressing the plunger, and, finally, pouring the coffee into the cups on the table. After the first few times Francis watched him do it, he was struck by how ritualistic Henry’s preparation of the coffee seemed, each movement so deliberate and thoughtful, almost Eucharistic. However, it did not take Francis long to realize that, although there is always a certain sense of ritual in preparing food or drink for a guest, Henry moved as slowly and deliberately as he did to keep his hands from shaking.
Francis had to move Henry four more times over the next three years, and with each move, Henry’s hair grew a little whiter, his walk more halting, his speech more hesitant. Each time Francis went to visit him, the sheaf of papers next to the typewriter had grown a little thicker, and each time, Francis found an excuse not to read what Henry had written.
The phone call from the police came on a Sunday afternoon in March, as Francis was writing his sermon for the following week, in longhand, the first draft. How could the police call him now, he thought, when he was writing a sermon? How could they expect him to drive to Saint Albans, tears stinging his eyes, curses burning in his throat? How could they expect him to identify the body, with so little face left to identify but who else could it be but Henry?
Francis made the funeral arrangements that night, sitting at his desk in his cluttered office at the head of the stairs, his head aching, his hand on the telephone. After his matter-of-fact conversation with Bill Demers, the town’s funeral director, he suddenly wanted pallbearers. He wanted them very badly, six men in dark suits, dignified and reverent, carrying the casket with measured steps and downcast eyes. He called each member of the vestry and half the congregation, but none would do it.
Francis performed the funeral service in an empty church, with only his wife in attendance, Henry having few relatives in the States left alive, and the one who agreed to come, a nephew in Baltimore, calling the night before to say he had the flu and was unable to travel. Francis’s children had timidly asked to attend the funeral, out of some feeling of obligation Francis did not quite understand, but he did not want them saddened by the sight of him and their mother alone in the musty church with the casket, his voice cracking and echoing against the damp plaster walls.
The day after the funeral, Francis received a telephone call from Henry’s landlady, who pointed out to him that no cleaning service in town would touch the scene of a suicide, it was not the job of the police, and it was his responsibility in the first place for talking her into renting to an incompetent old man who clearly had no business living on his own.
When Francis and his wife arrived at the apartment, the color left his wife’s face when he pushed open the door and she smelled the blood, but she worked by his side all day. When the walls and ceilings were clean, the nightstand and headboard scrubbed, the ruined mattress carted to the dump, Henry’s personal effects packed and loaded into the car, the landlady politely informed that the job was finished, they drove home and went to bed with no conversation passing between them.
Henry’s note had been addressed to Francis, the language simple and lucid, the letters in perfect alignment, each key of the old Underwood hit square and true.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Gauffreau is the Director of Individualized Learning at Granite State College in Concord, New Hampshire, where she teaches critical inquiry and portfolio assessment of experiential learning. Her fiction publications include short stories in The Long Story, Soundings East, Ad Hoc Monadnock, Rio Grande Review, Blueline, Slow Trains, Hospital Drive, and Serving House Journal, among others. Her poetry has appeared in The Writing On The Wall, The Larcom Review, Natural Bridge, and several themed anthologies. Liz holds an MA in English/Writing from the University of New Hampshire. Learn more about Liz’s work and her take on the writing life at http://lizgauffreau.com.