Harry felt fractional, part man part air.
His flesh-and-bone part was squashed to four feet three inches by a fate and gravity too cruel to forgive, and the remaining two feet—he saw himself, his real self, as six foot three, not an inch shorter—see-through dream.
Just his luck to have overshot the medical definition of dwarf by a solitary inch (which denied him certain medical benefits along with some extra helpings of sympathy), yet he was one, both in his own as well as others’ eyes.
Had he been larger, he would have been ugly. As it stood, he was cute. Though no less ill-intended, for the feeling that fate had dealt him a spiteful hand never strayed far and, at thirty-two, he was still looking for someone to blame.
“You have no idea,” he explained to a colleague once in an inebriated moment of weakness, “how it feels to always be looked down upon. How it feels to always look up at.” Even sitting down, bar stool to bar stool, the height his eyes had to scale to reach those of his colleague was well over a foot, and he felt like a servile dog looking up at his master, dog eyes always looking up, looking up. Always climbing that foot, that forever intervening, forever excluding, forever humiliating, foot.
“Can’t be all that bad,” said the normally sized man, slurring slightly as he was now on his fourth drink, looking down at Harry. Then he belched rather loudly. “Sorry.”
“It is all that bad,” said Harry, who almost gagged on the fumes. “Trust me,” while turning quickly the other way for some fresher air. That misty mix of pizza, peanuts and beer belched in his direction was not pleasant.
On paper, the medically authentic dwarf is ill proportioned, some body part or other too big, too small, too long, too short, too fat, too thin, what have you (or some combination thereof). Not so Harry (which definitionally speaking made him a midget): all parts of him perfectly sized and proportioned, only he was built to scale—1:1.5. An inch of him measured an inch and a half of a real man, he used to say. He’d also make the joke sometimes, usually in equally inebriated circumstances, that some mad model railroad engineer had put him together in his basement to run his engines, or as a ticket collector, something like that, only he got the scale screwed up, took 1:150 to mean 1:1.50, ha, ha. One tiny error, and there you have him: Harry. No one even remotely sober ever thought that funny, but laughed nonetheless—considering the source. Those nowhere near sober shrieked with glee and ordered another round (go easy on the little one, bartender).
Well proportioned. Yes, he was that. He had even made sure of that, had measured everything and compared the result to encyclopedia dimensions of real people, or grown-ups (as he thought of those who so effortlessly rose above him). Had measured everything and confirmed it: yes, 1:1.5, in every way. Still, pretty safe from circus recruiters, he figured (something he told himself often, sardonically); not grotesque (a circus requirement), just small, and, apparently, cute.
But it was a sham, good-for-nothing cuteness that never had bought him anything. He was cute the way a grizzly cub, or a small dolphin, or a baby turtle was cute. Something you’d pat with daring fascination, but never bed. Not on your life, mister. And in his own mean little heart he had to admit that he would never stoop to seeking out company his own size.
So he wasn’t getting any.
Yet, it did have its advantages.
Not the least of which was the philosophical system he had built around the 1:1.5 (or, more to this point, 0.75:1) ratio, which said that by the cruel act of Fate (or God) which had sentenced him to a short life without parole (another one of his bar jokes), he was morally entitled to cut ethical and social corners by the same ratio. To wit: to be going-to-heaven honest, he only had to be seventy-five percent honest. To be a polite and perfect gentleman, he only had to be seventy-five percent polite, and only three-quarters the perfect gentleman.
Add to this the sympathy quotient, which when factored in made for further allowances, and he could do no wrong. However, he was ethical at heart and would not knowingly stray below his self-prescribed seventy-five percent mark. He viewed his inordinate sympathy allotment as a buffer zone rather than a license to rudeness and cruelty. Call it margin.
Sum total: He was excellent at sales.
Anything. You name it. Boats, kitchen appliances, shoes, stereos, golf clubs, real estate, subscriptions, bonds, silver futures, kangaroo meat, and as of late: cars. Anything. He could sell it. And people bought from him. A point of fact: He has never been fired from any job; each employer, in fact, always sad to see him go, and every departure (of which there have been many) initiated by Harry himself.
A small man unable to settle, at un-peace with himself.
And now cars. All out.
So all out, in fact, that he had recently been elected to the Nissan Millionaires’ Club for selling an astonishing forty vehicles (it is a sad but well-known fact that car salesmen do not sell cars, they sell “vehicles”) in one month, and was now attending their annual convention at the Long Beach Hilton, where he was to be presented with God knows what, but the booze was free. Harry, by the way, was not selling vehicles, he was selling automobiles. He much preferred that word, used it often and made it stick. Forty automobiles in a month, unbelievable. What’s your secret Harry?
Harry, up on the podium now, dwarfed (literally) both by props and presenter, reached up for his booty—a quite exquisite statuette of a man (grown-up but to 1:8 scale and gilded) taking a good swing with a wooden driver (made of real wood by the looks of it) at a non-existent ball resting on a non-existent tee on a non-existent teeing ground.
The grown-up presenter, who had replaced the much shorter statuette flown in from Japan (of a small, and equally gilded, Nissan man, and who was so short—it was decided locally—that he could be construed a mockery of Harry), pretended not to stoop in order to hand Harry his golden symbol of achievement (as if I golfed, thought Harry), then hastily pretended not to straighten himself from his not stooping.
A smiling Harry thanked the smiling presenter very, very much.
“So, tell us Harry, what’s your secret?” The presenter spoke into the microphone while looking out at the crowd as he asked the question, then down to Harry for the answer; handed him the microphone.
Harry said, “My secret?” Then, pausing as if considering how to put it, then said, being, for a change, 1:1 honest, “Promise them anything. Let Service make good on whatever you told them.”
The crowd doesn’t quite know how to take that, the unapplauding sea of peers out there in the darkness. Finally, they decide, but not in unison, that little Harry, forty-automobiles-in-a-single-month Harry, has made a joke, one of his odd jokes, and applause starts up much the same way rain starts on a warm summer’s afternoon, first one drop, then three, then eighteen, then one hundred sixty-two, then, finally: rain.
Harry, smiling and basking and bowing and holding up his little golden golfer man by the pulled-back and ready-to-strike wooden club with one hand, the microphone still in the other (the presenter is asking for it back, rather urgently, but Harry does not notice, or chooses not to) of course doesn’t miss this confused hesitation—for he was nothing if not perceptive (something that came with the territory of a constant lookout for who to blame)—and thought they were all a bunch of fucks. Grown-up fucking fucks.
The one person who could have, and no doubt gladly would have, pointed out that Harry’s little acceptance quip was in fact true—Ralph the Elm Street Nissan Service Manager, or SM for short—was not there; Harry had made sure of that—or as sure as he could—before making his rehearsed quip. Wouldn’t do now, would it? to have damaging witnesses around.
First at drinks earlier in the evening (“No, he’s not here, Harry. SMs are never invited to these sorts of things, only us Sales.”), and then, making his way to the podium to collect his prize, just to make extra sure (for who can trust anything a Salesman says?) looking this way and that to see if he could spot him. Ralph—what the hell was his last name: Pearson, Preston? extra grown-up, huge, burly, and unpleasant with an unruly mop for hair—should stick out a mile, even from Harry’s shallow vantage point.
No sign of him though. No sign of Ralph who had recently made some noises about submitting “reports” to unnamed automotive industry deities if Harry didn’t stop giving away the shop, as he put it. Perhaps it was time to move on. But not quite yet, there’s the booty to collect. He reached the podium fairly secure in his conviction that Ralph was not in the room. Now to negotiate these giant steps gracefully. Damn. With these legs? Where’s OSHA when you need them?
Applauding grown-up fucks. What a slow bunch; they had, just like he had predicted, decided he was kidding. Enjoying the joke.
But Harry was not kidding. Ever careful not to dip below the seventy-five percent line, he had assuaged the fears of, exaggerated features of, and minimized problems with—in that order: customers, cars, and cars; and had multiple-credit-carded (only as needed) his way through forty closes in one month. Count ‘em Folks: forty. And if problems (known in the industry as “customer complaints”) developed later, well, who could be mad at a guy his size (sympathy factor = safety margin = gilded golfer statuettes).
Well, Ralph (Pearson, Preston?) could, of course, since he had to do the cleaning up.
Now, forty automobiles in a single month (and the other three months not trailing that figure by much) add up to a sizeable commission, so Harry, still trying to make out his still applauding peers against the bright spotlights in his eyes, wasn’t hurting financially.
Still, you’d be surprised (or not, perhaps) at what he’d run into just trying to lease an apartment. Never any problems over the phone, of course, no, none, and since credit reports haven’t taken to reporting height (yet), everything looked just fine, no problem, sure, come on over—until he actually did come on over. A foot and three quarters may not sound like a lot as far as real distance goes, but in many a landlord’s eye it’ll take you all the way from desirable tenant (way over there to the left) to “member of the circus” (meaning gypsy, meaning roaming, meaning unreliable, meaning undesirable tenant—way over there to the right), and the many excuses dreamed up by apartment managers or owners for turning him down were both cold-blooded and ingenious, much like the many reasons Harry dreamed up and delivered to his many gullible, sympathizing customers to buy, right now (not tomorrow, not next week, and no, you don’t have to check with your better half), the car, washing machine, shoes, flag pole (yes, he did flag poles one whole summer season in Maine, causing not a small stir by being someone so short selling something so long—though not for very long, as he used to pun).
That’s why he stayed in hotels a lot. But eventually, and usually by hinting at legal action (next time he would bring a fully-grown lawyer), he would get an apartment, sign a lease, move in, something the landlord as a rule did regret for there was always someone who (purely coincidentally, we swear) decided to move out once Harry had settled in (and was apparently not just visiting someone, as they had hoped). Ah, come on, he isn’t that small. Oh, that, that has nothing to do with it, honestly (or some such page out of Harry’s 0.75:1 book on ethics).
As the applause finally wound down, Harry, statuette in one hand (he had finally handed the microphone back to the presenter), made a Churchill victory sign with the other (a small “v”) and flashed them a grin before quickly slipping off the stage and returning to his seat among attaboys, smiles, and Churchill victory signs back (big “V”).
“Okay, Folks,” said the emcee, as the house lights stirred awake. “That wraps up the evening’s presentations. You know where the bar is.”
They did. The house lights made it all the way up and the buffalos to a man stampeded in the direction of the refreshments, to get a “lube job” (the most heard and lamest of all auto salesmen convention jokes).
So, here he is, on this day of achievement, all fifty-one inches of him, reaching up to the bar for his gin and tonic (go easy there, little fella—well, the bartender didn’t actually say that, but he sure as hell looked like he could have), as miserable and as full of (target-less) blame as always.
Smiles all around. Everywhere. Smiles like weapons, like foils; you fence with them, you fence around them, you fence through them, but in sales you never let them fade, or slip. Harry smiled up, everyone else smiled down, with their own gin and tonics or beers or waters (normally three dollars a bottle, but this bar was open—with a twist of lemon).
“So, Harry is it? How long have you been with us?” wants to know a towering female with something perverse about her (or she wouldn’t be addressing him now, would she?).
The perverse, in these situations, usually came in two varieties: Curiosity (would you look at that) and Sympathy (poor thing). Neither of these two varieties ever stayed the course all the way into bed, of course, and even if, to his surprise, it would have, Harry more than likely would have bolted, for in that case the perverse would more than likely not have been one of the usual two, but of this darker, third variety: actual, the real thing: Someone truly perverse.
This one was of the Curiosity variety. A large specimen of Inebriatum Curiosum, to be exact, Harry’s own classification.
“Four months,” he answered.
“Wow, and already,” she answered, and sipped her, yeah, beer. That figures. Harry looked around for tattooed chains on her arms.
“Already what?” he said.
“Already a, you know, millionaire.”
“I’m not actually a millionaire.”
“I know that,” she said and touched him on the arm. A you-silly-man touch. Then she took another gulp of beer. She had large breasts which lifted and grew mountainous with the motion of bottle to lips.
“Well, good,” said Harry. “I don’t want you to go chasing me for the wrong reasons.”
“Oh, you,” she said. Silly, silly man. And took another gulp. Harry was expecting a belch to underscore things, but it didn’t come.
Still, she was definitely not his type. Time to move on.
“No, seriously,” said Harry. “Women want me for my money. Size, they say, does not matter. It’s all about how rich the little thing is. Until they discover that it isn’t rich at all.”
The large woman didn’t follow, but smiled understandingly anyway. Then she frowned and asked, “What thing isn’t rich?”
Not so very bright, this one.
“Me and mine,” he clarified.
“I thought you said you weren’t rich.”
“I’m not. Does it matter?”
“Of course it doesn’t.”
“How about size? Mine, though not rich, is pretty respectable size wise.”
“It’s not the size,” she reflexed, while catching up on the narrative.
“It’s what you do with it,” completed Harry. “Wanna see what I can do with mine?”
Sober, this woman would have been offended by this, but fortified, as it were, beer-wise, she did not rise to the occasion. Yet. “Of course not.”
“Why, of course?” asked Harry.
“Well, you know,” she said.
“No, I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m just interested, you know, in who you are.”
“Let me tell you who I am,” said Harry and motioned with his fingers for her ear to come closer. When she bowed her head closer to his, he whispered, “Why don’t you do me a big favor, Sweetie, and take your prick-teasing elsewhere?”
She both straightened and sobered up in a hurry. Harry added, “Please,” as if he had just asked her to get him another drink.
“You are a nasty little man,” she said, suddenly hurt, or acting hurt, Harry couldn’t tell which and didn’t much care, they amounted to the same thing: she left Harry alone.
And good riddance.
Up till now he had not noticed the giggle because it wasn’t one giggle. Or to be more precise, it was one giggle, but it moved around.
The bar—which, actually, was not a bar but one of the conference rooms (the “Conifer Room” it said on a brass plaque to the right of the double doors leading into it) masquerading as a bar, was large enough to hold all three hundred or so of the attendees, and it looked like everyone was there.
Waiters and waitresses were negotiating through the crowd like eels, delivering “lube jobs” and carrying away empty oil cans, bottles, mugs, cups, napkins, what-have-yous back to the kitchen or back to wherever they dump these things.
The odd giggle, he finally established, followed one of the waitresses around. Pursued her. And the giggle (stifled, of course, but who can really stifle anything in a place like this after two, or three, or four, or five, but who’s counting? lube jobs) was always spiced with little snickers or comments or asides which sounded alarmingly much like “Harry’s girl” and “Just his size” and “Maid to order, get it? Ha, ha.”
Whispered at first—moistened lips to lewd ear (would you look at that, Jim)—but after another drink spoken a little less circumspectly, and soon, once the giggle had made its round a couple of times and one and all had had a chance to down another refill or two or three, well, pretty much said out loud.
Then the snicker-spiced giggle seemed to multiply and then carve their own waitress-less paths through the crowd, in a sort of many-fingered prayer for a collision, which sounded much like: “Boy, wait until.” Or, “Oh, man, what if?” Or, “Jesus, what’ll he say?” Or, “Wouldn’t wanna miss.” Or some other variation on that theme.
And then this prayer was heard and answered: they did collide. Did Harry and the waitress.
Did Harry and Harry’s girl, who at forty-eight inches, precisely, did meet the medical length-stipulation for dwarf, if only just.
Where giggle and snicker had followed her around like rustling leaves (to be honest she was used to it, especially were drinks were served to a herd of salesmen—though tonight seemed a little more animated than usual, which puzzled her a bit), at this prayed-for collision everything went dead quiet and one and all made a crude show of looking away, or of at least not staring at the scaled-down couple.
Harry saw her first.
What the fuck?
She was, like Harry, built to scale, and probably also 1:1.5, perhaps 1:1.45. And actually very cute. And quick. And efficient. And intent on her task. Until.
She looked up. Ten feet between them, at most. Clear view. Then she looked around at the suited wall of glass-holding, unsmiling, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, expectant horde of away-looking spectators. And in putting two and two together, she dropped her tray.
Oh my God.
Harry looked up too, and around, and to a pair all eyes were on him now. It was his reaction they couldn’t wait to see, wouldn’t want to miss. Harry looked back at the waitress, her eyes watery and large now, no longer 1:1.45, more like 1:1. She stood like a small statue with broken glasses and bits of ice by her sneakered feet. Reebok, Harry noticed, for he noticed things like this, couldn’t help it, in his salesman blood.
Someone whose last vestige of political correctness had accompanied his last mouthful of “straight up, please” down the hatch said, not loudly, but plenty loud enough in the now pregnant silence, “Well, there’s your girl, Harry.”
What the fuck?
Harry looked up to see who said that, but there was no way of telling. Someone giggled, a woman. Probably the mountain-breasted one. Someone else giggled, too. “So, Harry, you gonna take all night?” Louder this time, but probably not the same guy. Harry couldn’t tell. Couldn’t see past the forest of gray, blue, brown-suited, stomach-bulging torsos.
“Chance of a lifetime, big guy.” From behind him. More giggles, but now a frown or two as well, perhaps-this-is-going-a-little-too-far frowns, but they were no more than a finger in the dike, this damn thing’s gonna blow, stand back.
“Come on, Harry. Buy the lady a drink. Or don’t you know what to do?”
And then there was only Harry. The waitress finally overcame her inertia and darted away through the trees, leaving the mess on the floor.
“Hey man, she’s getting away.”
Harry was not a spitting man, and for a mouth as dry as his was at this point to actually produce saliva at all was a minor miracle. But spit he did, a large, yellowish wad of phlegm and saliva hit a polished-beyond-belief left loafer (Dexter by the looks of it, he noticed), where it settled in as an expanding, liquidy sort of penny, well deserved.
The owner of this shoe, not sharing this opinion, went laugh > giggle > grin > smile > frown > grimace > “You little fuck!” then actually took a swing at Harry, who, size on his side for a change, remained very much missed.
“You fucking clean this up,” said the guy, and meant it, readying another swing, this one with a little more care. Someone behind him caught his arm, or perhaps Harry would have found out whether the guy could in fact hit a target. Even one his size.
“You fucking lick this up,” said the guy, or more like shouted.
The thing that welled up inside Harry took him by surprise.
Yes, sure, there was indignation, but that’s something he felt every day, more or less. Yes, sure, the glow of anger (which had now reached his eyes and moistened them—pissing him off further for fear someone may mistake that for tears and humiliation), but that was familiar, too, and to be expected. Yes, the beginnings of rage, even, welling and swelling, for he had a damn right to, didn’t he? This was an outrage; this was fucked up. Majorly. He could even sue for a thing like this (and don’t for a moment think that this didn’t cross his mind). But this was all par for his miniature course, and was not what took him by surprise.
No, the thing that welled and swelled and filled him more than anything else—and which did catch him unawares—was the still growing outrage at what they had done to her. He still saw her too large (1:1) eyes fighting back humiliation, blinking twice and letting go two large drops. He still saw her upper lip quiver, while her tongue came out for one quick peak after another, not knowing quite what was going on, then quick to take cover behind lips and teeth, playing it safe.
Her panic, really.
Panic. Caused by these fucks, these fucking giant fucks, and, and—and this recognition is what set him reeling, if not physically—and caused by him. By him being there, by him making her as much a butt of their jokes as he was. And much to his astonishment he found himself furious for her sake, furious at these fucks, at these inconsiderate, drunk fucks, for what they had done to her.
“Lick the fucking shoe yourself,” said Harry as he turned and headed into the forest of legs in pursuit of the waitress. Unsteady trunks parted enough to let him through, but barely. He more scraped through than ran, but then, as the forest thinned toward the edge, he picked up speed.
Once outside, Harry found himself on the wide and quiet landing. He looked around. To his left an old waiter was stacking trays, one by slowly one, removing empty glasses to a deep, gray plastic tray. To his right stood an obese security guard seemingly asleep on his feet since he didn’t pay Harry as much as a glance. How can they entrust fucks like that with guns?
Beyond the guard, farther down the landing, his eyes caught the tail end of a small, Reebok-footed leg, now there, then gone behind a swinging door, with its round glass window saying now you see me now you don’t, as it swung back and forth in her wake.
Not quite believing (or trusting, may be the better word) his feet, he nonetheless set out after her. Not too fast though. No running. Who knows, maybe that would startle the fuck guard awake, and Harry didn’t want a bullet in his back. There’s no telling what the fuck would do if he saw a midget running away from him. So, walking, fast. On quick dachshund, 1:1.5 legs.
He came to the swinging doors (still echoing softly back and forth) and pushed them open onto a large kitchen. He took it in. Yes, it was a kitchen, though it looked more like a Detroit assembly belt. This thing was constructed for large meals, no backyard barbeques this, this was where you fed small towns from.
He didn’t see her. Saw dishwashers though, three of them. The first one cleaning the trays and trays (obviously other functions underway as well tonight) of their half-emptied wine glasses, the wine from which, he observed, made its way through a wide plastic funnel into a large bottle at the man’s feet, each glass poured quickly with an agile and practice hand, filling the bottle with impressive speed, and he made a long unmade connection: so that’s why dish-washers prefer funerals to weddings—he’d heard that odd comment twice, at least, but had never had it explained—of course, of course: wedding guests finish their drinks, funeral guests mostly don’t, I see, I see. A funeral tonight, then. Of some size. Happy dishwasher hands pouring lots of left over wine into several bottles (now that the took a closer look).
The second dishwasher was spraying down dirty plates with a hose the size of a python. The third was populating the largest dishwasher Harry’d ever seen. It looked more like a wash for midget cars.
And there were cooks, a row of them, choppers, stirrers, sniffers, and tasters. Lots going on. Big kitchen, this. Indeed.
But no sign of two little Reeboks, probably as yet unaware of his pursuit but no less out of sight. He set out down a row of ovens.
He looked around for the source.
A cook, was it? Or do they call them chefs here? Either way, he came up from behind, and with speed. A huge, Swelter-like (yes, like the Swelter of Gormenghast fame), complete with billowing chef’s hat (what are those hats good for anyway?) and red-faced, again: “You there. Kid.”
Harry stopped and turned. “Yes.”
The large, white-frocked, child-chasing man stopped short, stunned. Chased a kid, caught a small man. A confused weather system.
“Yes,” said Harry again.
“Where? Where do you think you’re going?” said the chef, addressing some mixture of child and man, still working things out. “Lost?” he added.
The man had bad teeth, and looked slightly drunk. More and more like Mervyn Peake’s Swelter, in fact. Don’t tell me I’ve eaten this man’s food, Harry thought. The thought did not amuse him.
“No. Not lost.”
“Looking for someone.”
“A waitress. Have you seen her?”
“My size,” he added.
“Oh, her. No.”
“She came in here.”
Swelter took a quick look around. “May have. Not here now.”
Harry looked around, too. Not as quickly. Then back to the chef. “Are you sure?”
“Can I take a better look around?”
“No you cannot.”
“She’s not here.”
“Mind if I make sure?”
“Yes, I mind.”
“It won’t take long.”
“Guests are not allowed in my kitchen,” running short on patience now, was Swelter.
My kitchen? My kitchen? Now, that’s one thing Harry had never done, despite whatever other ethical shortcomings he could own up to under the 0.75:1 umbrella: He had never pretended that he owned the car lot, as in “I probably won’t have a blue one in until two weeks from now,” or “I’ll see if I have one of these in stock,” as if the fucks owned the place. And here again, was this Mr. Fucking Hilton here, playing chef, all dressed up, in his kitchen.
“Your kitchen? Yeah, I bet.”
The large cook, clean out of patience now, took a threatening step in Harry’s direction and in a small epiphany Harry realized that here was a man who had nothing on hitting children, and who would have nothing on hitting Harry either, and in the light of that insight quickly darted past him retracing his route out the swinging doors and back out onto the landing. The doors creaked a little as they set out again on their back and forth and back and forth behind him.
The security guard had not moved. The fuck is asleep, Harry decided. He looked back towards the “Nissan Bar” (not very well painted on a piece of cardboard, askew on a tripod by the door). Noisy in there. Talk of the town now was he? Pretty sure of it. He considered going back, just to up-yours the lot of them, but the image of moist 1:1 eyes would not leave him alone. He looked back. She had slipped in through the kitchen. He sighed and turned. There was no getting around it. Back to Mr. I-own-this-fucking-place Swelter.
This time he was a little more circumspect. Opening the swinging doors slowly, noiselessly, slipping in, sliding up to and in under the worktop to his left (his size coming in handy for the second time tonight, the first being hard to hit). Lots of space here. And a decent view. He had a clear shot at agile fingers still filling bottles with leftover drinks, no longer the red wine from the last round though, this looked white, champagne perhaps. He could imagine the hangover that mixture would bring, and shuddered a little.
Many pairs of legs, one decidedly Swelter-like, moving about. Yes, one of them definitely belonged to Swelter, for he heard the somewhat lubed voice again, “Okay ducks, six more Nachos Grande, and three Calamaris.” Mexican funeral in progress, decided Harry.
He worked his way down the worktop portico towards an absence of legs, and then peeked out again. Door. Possibly. Then froze. It opened, and as if by design, a chin, a cheek, a little nose peeked out, followed by two 1:1 eyes who hit his straight on, bull’s eye.
They looked at each other for what Harry later thought of as minutes before either of them moved. She was the first to. Moved. Gone. Door swung shut.
Harry unfroze, slid out from under the bench, and headed after her.
Another “Hey!” from somewhere behind him that he had no problem ignoring.
“You there!” Oh, the fat fucker. He had the urge to turn and fight, but his feet had other ideas, through the door and into a not very well lit corridor beyond they went. Dungeon-like he decided. Gormenghast indeed. A bit dank, with the faintest scent of lily of the valley. He sniffed at the air again, another nose-full. Faint but true. Something she was wearing, he decided. Which way?
To his left: the corridor moved past several doors, then trailed off to the right. To his right: the corridor ran straight and then grew better lit and onto a set of stairs, leading up and into the belly of the hotel.
He took several steps to his left, stopped, and sampled the air: the lily of the valley scent, yes, stronger. The floor even looked disturbed by little Reeboks. A few more steps and the scent grew even stronger.
He started running, came to the bend, which turned a full ninety degrees. After that, the corridor widened, and then climbed down a couple of broad stairs, apparently heading for the nether regions of the hotel, and by degrees things grew more and more Gormenghast-like. Had he missed a dimension shift back there? Twilight Zone? Lily of the valley, though, stronger.
He set out again into the semi-darkness, now following his nose as much as his intuition, stepped down the shallow steps, and along the corridor into the heart of things. Felt like a bloody gnome, he did.
A turn, two more steps down, and there, as if she had run out of running room (which she had not), she sat. Atop a pile of laundry bags, feet close to but not touching the concrete floor. White stockings, like a nurse, black dress. Very waitressy. And very still.
Harry stopped. She had seen him coming, and looked him in the eyes.
“What do you want?” she said. Perched. A little afraid. Large 1:1 eyes.
Well, that was a good question, he had to admit. He didn’t have a clue. So far it had all been instinct: a feeling, part outrage, part not-sure-what. And now, having served their purpose, this feeling took off, stranding him clueless. He said nothing. And then said a little more nothing. He just looked at her. Seeing her and not seeing her. Looking for clues, outside, inside, finding none.
“What?” She wondered. “Cat’s got your tongue, or what?”
“I guess,” he finally managed. Then his thoughts found some traction and he drew breath and said, “I just wanted to apologize for the fucks back there.”
She recoiled a little at the word, and he regretted having said it. Then rephrased the apology, using “inconsiderate bastards” instead, with better effect.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Yes,” he said. Agreed.
And that said—for he realized that this was what he had chased her to say, to apologize for them—he had nothing to add. He simply stood there, looking at her looking back at him, looking and not feeling a bit uncomfortable.
It was a strange thing, that. He didn’t feel embarrassed—well, he rarely did, so that was nothing new—but he didn’t feel defensive either, there was nothing to defend against, nothing to justify, he just felt, well, light. Light. Light’s the word. As in not weighty. Just, you know, airy. Comfortably airy. Just eyes looking at eyes, with a touch of inevitability. Just a twist. Looking at being looked at.
Maybe there was a cat, after all, and maybe it had got his tongue, he thought, or said, for she smiled at that, and said, “Looks like it.”
“Tongue and clue-less, you’re looking at him.”
She did. She scrutinized him, as if looking for something. She said nothing, though.
“Look,” he said, in possession of his tongue after all. “I’m not very good at this, but, you know, I was a little worried about you. I’m used to taking this shit in one form or another all the time, but I thought…”
He noticed that little recoil again, this time at “shit” and wondered, then decided, that yes, it was genuine, it wasn’t an act. She didn’t like foul language.
“But I thought,” he started up again, “perhaps you. Well, I can take it. I take it all the time, but I couldn’t take seeing you, seeing you get the same, the same,” looking frantically for a shit synonym and came up with “garbage” which he thought was a bit lame, but it would have to do.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I pretty used to it as well.”
When he didn’t answer, she added, “Not as bad as tonight, maybe, but all the same, the same, well, garbage, in one form or another, most nights. Especially with open bars,” suddenly looking down at her hands as if aware that she had just used his synonym for, well.
Silence fell again, and again it was unnervingly comfortable. Harry had definitely entered unchartered territory. Comfort. What was up with that?
“What’s your name,” he said at length.
“Harriet,” she said.
“You have got to be kidding,” he said.
“Yes. What’s wrong with Harriet?”
He walked over to her, then stuck out his 1:1.5 hand, and she, without rising, held out hers. A nice clasping, quite informally formal. “Harry,” he said, and bowed ever so slightly. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Harry?” she said. Dropped his hand. “You have got to be kidding.”
“What’s wrong with Harry?” he said, and for the first time in ages truly felt like smiling, then did.
She smiled a little, too, then slipped off the laundry sack and landed noiselessly on the floor. Almost his size.
“I’ve got to get back,” she said. “I’m in enough trouble as it is.”
Her hair was very dark, and long, he decided (it was pinned up at the back, under her white waitress cap, just like a nurse’s hair). The smell of lily of the valley entered him sweetly.
“Lily of the valley,” he said.
“Sure,” she said.
“Got a good nose,” he said. Meaning his own. Tapping it with his 1:1.5 left index finger, then said, “So you do get a lot of garbage here?”
“A fair amount, yes.” Anxious now to get going.
“So, why do you, do you…?”
“Well, for one it beats sympathy.”
“Listen, Harry,” she smiled again at that strange coincidence, “I’ve got to get back.”
Then Harry, much to his amazement, heard himself say, “Let’s escape.”
“Escape. Run away.”
She looked at him, then around the corridor as if to see if someone else could hear this lunatic. “What are you saying? Run away? Are you crazy?”
“No, really. I’m serious.” Amazing himself more and more by the second. For he really—actually—he realized, on some level that he was quite unfamiliar with, meant it. “You don’t need this. I don’t need this.”
She scrutinized his face, looking for cracks, but found him whole. Then, after a short silence, said “I don’t even know you.”
“I know,” he begun.
“Just because we’re both small,” she said, as if he had said nothing, “that doesn’t mean.” And left it at that.
Another good point, of course. “Look, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not really sure what I mean. Actually.” And trailed off into silence.
“Listen, Harry,” she said without smiling this time, but quite sweetly, “I appreciate you finding me, to apologize for them. I really do.”
“But. But, I’m not sure what.”
“Are you, uh, attached?” he asked, amazing himself to new heights. And it actually came out like an honest question, just like he had meant it to, had hoped it would. Very unchartered waters, this.
“Am I, oh no. No.” It sounded to him like, of course not.
Then something else escaped his lips to the utter astonishment, and acute embarrassment, of his ears. “They tell me I’m cute,” is what he said. Most likely the very lamest thing he had ever come up with under any circumstances.
She looked at him, frowned a little, as if inspecting. “Well, you kinda are, actually.”
“Well, good then,” his rebel lips pressed on, “let’s make a run for it.”
“For what? The hills? And do what? Live on air? You’re a nutter.”
“It’s English for fool.” She pronounced ‘fool’ as if it had four or five ohs.
“It’s a language they speak in England.”
“Of which ‘nutter’ is a part?”
“And which describes me?”
“To a tee.”
“Because,” and then she said again, “I don’t even know you.” But with less conviction this time.
“Yeah,” he admitted, “I’m sorry. I’m out of line here.”
“I’ve got to get back,” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “I know.” And stepped aside to let her pass.
White stockings and noiseless Reeboks climbed the broad stairs, trailing a sweet lily of the valley scent, made the turn, and then vanished.
He dreamed about her that night. They were sailing, no they were driving, no they were sitting high up on a mountain, Mount Wilson perhaps, looking down at the city. Somewhere high up, looking down on Los Angeles, a clear day, you could see Catalina, hell, you could see Japan. Just him and her. Talking.
“You know,” she said in the dream, after a short silence. “I feel fractional.”
“What’s your ratio?” he asked.
And she laughed.
She answered on the third ring.
“Harriet?” he asked.
“This is Harriet,” she answered.
When she didn’t answer, he said, “We met in the dungeons.”
“I remember.” Then, “How did you get my number?”
“A well-placed bribe at the Long Beach Hilton.”
“Harry, I don’t know.”
“Dinner. Just a meal. Not running anywhere.”
She didn’t answer for so long that he feared she had silently hung up and slunk out some door and down some long, unfollowable corridor. But it was her turn to speak. He had said all he could. The rest, everything now, was up to her.
When she finally spoke, what she said was, “All right.”