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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A MAN LIKE HENRY
by Virginia Davis

 

 

 

The evening had begun pleasantly enough; Hilma was invited as a guest of Henry and Liz for ‘A Christmas to Remember’ with the Portland Symphony Orchestra at The Harbor Center for the Arts - a new music venue downtown. It was a special holiday show, and at times during the performance, the tiny, downy hairs on Hilma’s arms stood up straight, which she discovered happened at times when she was especially aroused.

The director was Charlie Flatt, a boy she had as a student many years ago at Munjoy Baptist Sunday school. He was now a portly man, who must’ve acquired his full height at the age of ten, Hilma thought, since his cinnamon-colored head tonight barely cleared the podium. Mr. Flatt was dressed for the occasion in good-natured holiday red, which allowed his ample figure and mottled complexion the look of Italian fennel sausage wrapped in cellophane.

At intermission, a chorale comprised of local fourth, fifth and sixth-graders entertained the patrons. Henry and Liz’s granddaughter Sara were among those performing. On Sara’s left stood a new student from Vermont – her name was Mary or Mandy. Hilma rummaged the back of her mind for the story. How did it go? The girl’s mother had met a fisherman, and packed and shipped her kid out like a crate of Florida oranges to live here with relatives in Portland before running off to Alaska with him, some bears, and god knows what else. Well, Hilma thought as she dabbed one side of her nose with a wadded ball of tissue, she wasn’t the first woman to fall fool for a man.

The little girls were cute, dolled-up in fancy dresses of crisp taffeta and red velveteen, and among them, the inevitable one wearing red corduroys and a lacy turtleneck, because in Hilma’s experience, there is always one young lady who refuses to wear a dress.

Hilma noticed that one of Sara’s fluffy, white. knee- high socks was slouching half-way down her shin. Ten years ago, her friend Liz would’ve been up on that stage in a flash, adjusting the lazy sock and fussing with Sara’s hair, managing to embarrass both herself and her grandchild. Now, Hilma wondered if the impeccable Liz realized that one of her earrings was missing? Hilma had noticed this when Henry and Liz had picked up her up for the drive over but decided not to mention it. For reasons not consistent with the spirit of the season, it was refreshing to see her friend Liz in a less than perfectly put together outfit. Hilma caught herself checking to make sure her own studs were carefully attached to both lobes.

The audience settled down as the children began to sing: the old stand-by “Away in The Manger”, followed by a secular tune about the reindeer with the glowing nose, their performance ending with a less than enthusiastic rendition of “Jingle Bells”, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t that fun to go riding in a sleigh. Hilma considered that as possibly true, the way kids were attached to their electronics these days.


***


It came as a surprise when Liz called that afternoon to see if she would like to join them. Hilma hadn’t heard as much as a peep from Liz for several months, maybe closer to a year, and that was unusual, since they had at one time been so close. She did run into Henry though, just a few weeks before in the grocery store, thumbing through one of those financial magazines you find at the dentist’s office.

He spoke first. “Why hello, Hilma. What a nice surprise.”

Henry’s bright smile indicated that he was indeed very happy to see her although they didn’t chat long - Liz was outside waiting for him in the car, he said, and he really shouldn’t keep her waiting. As Hilma readied herself for her evening with them at the Harbor Center for the Arts, she thought that the random meeting at the store probably prompted Henry and Liz to extend the invitation to join them tonight.

Halfway through the assembly, as the orchestra played an unfamiliar tune, Hilma glanced down at the wrinkled program for identification. The pocket flashlight she fished out of her purse strayed from the list of selections in her lap and cast a beam the size of a marble on the left toe of Henry’s brown oxford. Likely he had a similar pair of black ones in his closet at home to go with his dark suits, Hilma thought.

There was something to be said for a man who took pride in his appearance. A nobility perhaps, a well-clothed man who demands respect.  During her forty-eight years with Sammy, all she had ever known her husband to wear was big, holey flannel shirts and work boots. Big, oafish-looking boats, heavy as cement blocks with leather tops hardened by road salt in the winter, and laces knotted together when the need to replace them was too taxing or too frequent.

Her husband wore those boots in the winter, spring, summer and fall; on the rare occasions when they went out to eat, and the few times she managed to drag him to church. He even wore them at their wedding. Come to think of it, the only time Sammy didn’t have those boots on his feet was in his casket, an incredibly realistic surly look on his sour face created by a talented local mortician, known for his ability to re- create on the deceased a remarkable facsimile of their likeness while alive.

After Sammy passed, Hilma perused the shops downtown to purchase her husband a pair of shiny wing tips so for once in his life (or after life, if you wanted to look at it that way), he would appear presentable for his family and friends, only to be called by the funeral director the next day, to inform Hilma that he couldn’t manage to force Sammy’s feet into those brand-new shoes. Even in death, Hilma ruminated, Sammy was a stubborn son of a gun.

“Do you have another pair I could try?” he asked, but Hilma discovered that she’d rather her husband go barefoot than to bury him in those boots; she could be ornery too.

“Just leave him in his socks,” she advised the man, “stuff something around his feet and no one will ever notice.”

In the end, plastic flowers, gardenias and daisies and a couple of yellow roses Hilma pulled from a vase in the viewing room were strategically arranged around the bottom third of his casket, covering his feet and giving the appearance of an angry man napping in his wife’s flower garden.


***


A smattering of polite applause jostled her memory back to the present, and with a deep concentration on the program in front of her, Hilma’s pocket flashlight moved slightly to Henry’s socks - dark blue, with narrow white and green stripes circling the top below his pant leg.

Many times, she had been shopping watching Liz carefully select pairs of socks for her husband Henry; fine cotton for the summer months, warm merino wool in anticipation of colder weather. It wasn’t difficult, nor did it take very long, to choose socks for Sammy. The purchases were always the same: big, thick white ones that kept his feet dry under those clunky boots.

The flashlight travelled north and caught a square of Henry’s khakis. Good grief, it had been a long time since she had pondered the anatomy behind a man’s trousers! The soft hairs between her elbows and wrists rose once again, and Hilma quickly tucked the flashlight back into her pocketbook.

Twice, out of the corner of her eye, she caught Henry reaching to clasp Liz’s hand and each time Liz shook him off, surprising Hilma because they had always been such an affectionate couple. Henry’s third overture was accepted, although she noticed the corners of Liz’s lips twitch and turn down, as if she didn’t approve.

Those tight wooden chairs built for slim hips made Hilma squirm as she readjusted herself. Well now Liz, she thought wistfully, maybe you should be thankful you have a nice husband like Henry. A man who appreciates an orchestra playing Christmas hymns, a man with a little class.

During intermission, Henry bought hot coffee from the concession stand in the hallway. Liz chided him for adding cream to her cup.

“You know I always drink it black, what’s the matter with you?” she said. And instead of accepting the coffee as it was, she handed it back to Henry who returned to the counter for a fresh cup.

After the performance, the street outside was icy and slick, the moonless sky black and thick as tar. Henry offered an arm to each. Hilma noticed a look on Liz’s face, as if she took offense at her husband’s gallantry toward another woman. The idea of jealousy preposterous, Hilma thought.

It was true, Henry could just as easily have been her own husband had she played her cards right, she had met him first and there was definite interest on both sides. Instead, she had set her sights on Sammy, that rancid nut in a candy wrapper, who honked as he waited in her mother’s driveway, sitting behind the wheel of that old ’52 Dodge with cold air jetting out of the heater and fluid leaking out of the radiator.

He’ll be a good provider, with that landscaping business, her mother predicted in a scratchy baritone, sucking the life out of her Camel cigarettes. Likely he’ll take you to Florida while the rest of us break our backs shoveling snow.

But Hilma’s mother was a bank teller, not a fortune teller, and there were no trips south. When winters came, Sammy attached a snowplow that sat on their front lawn for nine months out of the year and cleared lots all over town, ending his afternoons at Morton’s and downing shots of well whiskey. The last driveway to be cleared of snow was their own, leaving Hilma isolated all day.

Then there was tea parties Liz hosted in the afternoon early in their marriages. The wives of Henry’s work associates perched in white wicker chairs in Liz’s sunroom, dainty and demure like tiny chickadees, the Maine state bird. Hilma had attended the first of these, in a dress she had made from a selvage of pewter sateen, deep-hued red poppies swarming like bees across the bodice. She considered herself well dressed, until she took look at the smart shifts and tailored suits the others had worn. Instantly she was aware of the uneven stitching of her skirt hem, and the poorly installed zipper that bunched along her spine and caused her to squirm in her chair. The others sat posture straight with smooth, tanned legs - one crossed primly over the other, perfectly manicured toenails peeking out of expensive Italian leather sandals. Hilma sat on the sidelines, her own feet planted firmly in Liz's plush carpet like a basketball player waiting to take center court. Hilma was never a leg-crosser.

As Liz busied herself in the kitchen, one of the young wives made the sacrifice of including Hilma in on the conversation by asking what her Sammy did for work. Hilma’s mind raced. What could she say to this friend of Liz’s whose spouse worked at the same law firm as Henry, who lived in a beautiful home and budgeted a weekly salary that would rival six months of Sammy’s paychecks?

Hilma considered her options. She could respond that when the whim struck, her husband groomed hydrangea bushes the color of the gin-blossoms on his face, or when he wasn’t asleep he was either watching ‘Bowling for Dollars’ with his damn boots on the coffee table or keeping company with Mary Jane Dewhirst across town. That knowledge as common as the Earth is round, even if Hilma was one of the last to know.

Many times, Hilma considered dropping her husband off at Mary Jane’s for good. Maybe even offering her a starter kit with a few of his favorite recipes, a case of beer, and the old wingback armchair Sammy had fished out of the dump and called his own.

In the end she said to Liz’s guest - I’m ashamed to say really don’t know what he does all day. But I do know that he travels a lot - justifying that when it came down to brass tacks, it wasn’t as if she was telling tales.

The group grew silent waiting for more information. The nosy wife in designer boucle pinched her lips into a pink line so tight it could’ve been drawn on with a fine-tipped marker. Hilma squared the napkin in her lap, sat up a little straighter in her chair. She crossed her legs.

It wasn't long after, that Hilma recognized only two tribes: The Have’s and The Have Nots. Liz and Henry and the women in that room ‘had’, and it was quite clear that she and Sammy ‘had not’. How is it, Hilma wondered, that the choice of one man instead of another can predict the rest of your life? It wasn’t fair, she decided. One exchange of ‘I do’s,’, and the rest is history?

That was the first and last party of Liz’s that Hilma attended. Instead, they continued a life-long friendship by shopping for Henry’s ties, monogrammed Oxford shirts and finely worsted socks. They lunched downtown when Hilma had two nickels to rub together, and Hilma assisted Liz with her afternoon parties, helping stuff tomatoes with tuna, mix cream cheese and olives into spread and rinsing watercress in Liz’s beautiful kitchen sink.

Together, they shared sixty plus years of friendship between them.  But when it came down to Sammy and Henry – their world as couples never collided.

Only once back when they were first married, did Hilma and Sammy accept a dinner invitation at Liz and Henry’s home. The conversation between their husbands so awkward that Hilma shoved the evening like outgrown clothing into the attic of her mind. One moment of embarrassment however, reappeared every now and then, making her stomach churn and her face to flush even after all these years.

After dessert, Henry insisted that he and Sammy help by carrying the dinner dishes into the kitchen. “Come on, Sam, I have something in here I want to show you.” Henry had said, urging Sammy from his chair in the dining room.

A shiny new appliance sat in Henry and Liz’s kitchen, wedged under the sink beside a massive double-door refrigerator.

“See what I just bought Liz, Sam?  Just load it up like this here and throw a little detergent into the chamber.” Sam observed, the neck of a bottle of beer dangling from his right hand as Henry placed dirty dishes into the racks and poured the soap into a little compartment at the bottom. Henry pressed a green button and the four of them watched the appliance shudder and come to life.

“It’s a dishwasher. You ought to buy one of these for Hilma.”

Hilma never forgot what her Sammy did next. After taking a long pull of his beer he burped and announced: Naw, I don’t need nothing as fancy as that, Henry. I’ve got my own little dishwasher right here, don’t I, Hilma? - having the gall to ask, before pinching her behind, right there in front of Liz and Henry and their beautiful kitchen and leaving a greasy stain she never could get out in the back of her best dress.


***


Henry settled his wife into the front seat and reached for the webbing of her seat belt.

“I’m feeling a draft on my neck, Henry. For God’s sake, start the car and turn on the heat. I guess I can buckle myself in.”

Liz coaxed one side of her hair around the ear with the missing earring. Her graying hair, usually carefully dyed blonde, had grown longer than Hilma had ever remembered.

“Well of course you’re cold Elizabeth, where’s your scarf?” Henry asked her.

“What are you talking about now? I didn’t wear any scarf tonight.”

“Of course, you did, that gold cashmere? You must have left it in the theatre.”

“Do you mean that one you bought me for Christmas?” Liz asked her husband, “that time you dragged me to Switzerland instead of spending the holidays with our kids like we should have? I haven’t seen that for years.”

Liz turned around to face Hilma, straining against her seat belt.

“Do you remember me wearing any gold scarf?” She asked.

Like a sneeze in a crowd, Hilma thought, it was a question best avoided, Luckily, Henry interrupted.

“It probably slipped under the seat you were sitting in, that’s happened to me many times. You girls sit here and warm up,’ he told them. “I’ll be right back.”

Together the women watched as Henry pushed his lean body against the pedestrian traffic heading out of the venue. His septuagenarian posture straight as a teenager. Several minutes later he returned waving the cashmere scarf in the air like a victory flag.


***


The car blew a tire about five miles from Hilma’s house.

“I’ll need a flashlight, Elizabeth.” Henry said. “Do you keep a flashlight in here?”

They were riding in Liz’s Pontiac. Hilma hoped the car had a flashlight. It was no kind of night to be out with a flat, she thought.

“Of course, I have a flashlight, it’s here in the glove compartment.” Liz said. “And please hurry, you know how afraid I am of the dark.” She reminded him.

Henry leaned over his wife and opened the glove box while Liz turned to Hilma.

“Hilma, do you know I was stopped by the police Tuesday? The officer said I was doing forty miles an hour in a twenty- five mile per hour zone.”

“No!” Hilma told her. “You’re a good driver!”

Although that might not have been a true statement, Hilma considered. It had been awhile since she had been in a car with Liz behind the wheel.

Henry grunted from exertion or comment – Hilma couldn’t decide which - as he searched inside the glove compartment.

“I don’t see it in here anywhere.” He told Liz. He slid back into the driver’s seat and opened the car door. “I’ll take a look in the trunk.”

“I don’t see why we don’t call Triple A instead of fooling around here in the pitch dark.” Liz complained. She pulled the recovered scarf a little aggressively around her neck.

Henry looked exasperated. At least Hilma felt that he did.

“Nonsense, Elizabeth. I could change all four of these tires before anyone from Triple A would get to us. I just need some light around here.”

I have a pocket light right here in my purse, Hilma offered, I could hold it for you, to which Liz replied:

“Don’t be a goddamn fool, Hilma. Stay in this car. God knows what lurks out there in the dark!”

Hilma had never heard Liz utter a foul word in her life. It was insulting, really. How did a woman that complained as often as Liz had all night, deserve a good man like Henry?

“Now, now, we are all tired, it’s been a long evening.” Henry said.  “And yes, Hilma, if you have a flashlight, I could use some help.”

Henry climbed out of the car and shut his door. Hilma heard him fumble around in the trunk while Liz opened the glove box again. She shuffled through some papers.

“I know the flashlight is in here. I saw it just the other day when the patrolman stopped me.”

Liz stopped searching for a flashlight and pulled an old Chapstick out of the glove box instead.

“Did I tell you a cop stopped me for speeding the other day?” She said, smearing her lips with balm while making eye contact in the visor’s mirror.  “Claims I was doing forty miles per hour in twenty-five miles per hour zone.”

Well that was what controlling Liz’s odd behavior all night, Hilma thought. Dementia. She must be losing her mind, repeating herself like that.

So you said, not five minutes ago, Hilma reminded Liz. She grabbed the pocket light from her purse and opened the car door.

“You’re a fool to stand out there in this freezing weather, Hilma.” Liz warned. But Hilma decided that she had played the fool before and it was a role she was comfortable with. She stood behind Henry and clicked on the light. A beam the size of a marble illuminated the seat of Henry’s trousers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Virginia Davis

A New England native, Virginia divides her time between her two favorite activities: writing, and clothing and accessory design. Her fiction has been published in the Los Angeles-based literary journal “Delphinium”, “Alm” magazine. She lives in Portsmouth, NH.

 

 

 

 

     
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