HARRY HAD A KNACK

by Robert Cleary


Harry Puddle was late again. The roast beef dinner, his favorite meal, was arrayed on the dinning room table in the finest Puddle china. Edna, Harry's wife, sat at her place and sadly watched her day's labor turn cold. She glanced at her watch, the tenth time in ten minutes, and confirmed that Harry was now an hour late.

Why didn't he call? she thought, but she knew the answer all too well. Harry never called. She had hoped that tonight would have been different.

Edna reminded herself that it was Wednesday night; Harry always came home on a work night. No matter how late he stayed at the office, he always managed to make it home. Friday nights and weekends, unfortunately, were another story.

The routine had been the same for forty years of marriage. Edna would cook and clean all day and then worry herself sick in the evening waiting for her husbands return. Eventually, Harry could come stumbling into the house, tired, grouchy, and sometimes drunk. Edna would try to confront him, but the moment he looked into her eyes the anger and frustration would melt away like magic. It was as if her emotions were a pendulum that Harry could swing from one extreme to the other. With one look all of his transgressions would be swept away by a flood of blissful thoughts. Harry had a knack for making Edna very happy.

In spite of the ruined dinner and Harry's absence on their anniversary night, Edna could not deny how lucky she was to be married to a man like Harry. He alone was responsible for bringing so much joy into her life. Edna felt that she could never repay him for doing so much for her. She didn't deserve to feel so complete and so satisfied.

At eight o'clock, Edna carefully wrapped and labeled the dinner bowls before placing them into the fridge. Only after cleaning up did she finally sit down in the kitchen to have her meal. She ate it cold, not wanting to enjoy it knowing that her poor husband was at the office, hungry and working hard. Guilt proved to be a bitter spice for her late meal.

After dinner, Edna walked into the "Museum" to continue her vigil. The Puddles called it the living room but the few friends that came to visit did not because of one unique feature. An ancient trophy case, salvaged from an abandoned high school, was installed along an entire wall. It was two feet deep and towered from floor to ceiling. Resting behind the display glass like the artifacts of a dead civilization, were the honors and accomplishments of Harry's life.

Office citations, anniversary gifts, and framed letters of accommodation filled the oak shelves that use to house basketball and track awards. A place of honor was reserved on the top shelf for the largest prize, which towered over the lesser awards like a pillar of honor. It was a bowling trophy that celebrated Harry's second place finish in the third annual bowl-a-thon sponsored by his office. It was an ugly anomaly, even by trophy standards, with pink and green marble pieces that were poorly glued together. A brass bowling figure, frozen in mid-throw, stood on top, listing upward as if trying to lob the ball into space. It was the only thing in the house that Harry cleaned, and Edna had strict orders never to move it unless the house was burning.

Edna sat in her assigned seat, a small chair near the kitchen where she sewed and listened to Harry's after dinner stories. This was her favorite part of day for it was the only time Harry paid any attention to her. He would talk for hours and Edna would learn the details of how he had swiped someone's account or how he overcharged some unsuspecting customer. The stories were usually old and exaggerated from years of retelling, but Edna didn't care because they were her only link to her husband.

She was very proud of Harry. To hear him tell it, he was the most successful salesman in his territory, and Edna believed him. She also believed that Harry was a good provider and would have made a great father; but there never seemed to be enough time to start a family, especially with Harry's schedule and all the chores Edna had on her plate.

"No need to dwell on what might have been," she said to the silent house. "You're fifty-eight today and much too old to be thinking about children now." Edna always spoke to herself whenever she felt sad, and nothing brought on a cloud of sadness quicker than thinking about the children she never had. Pushing the pain out of her mind, she said, "Where could that Harry be?" The mantle chimed nine times as if trying to answer her most nagging questions.

"Harry works much too hard," she said to the clock, her voice warming up to her private discourse. "He's always training the new people. There must be someone else who could do that."

Angry over the injustice of it all, she felt the anger rise up as her voice took on a bitter edge. "And not just sales people! They have him training secretaries too. He must train a new one every month." In order to keep her mind off her frustrations, Edna began to recall the happiest moment in her life; the night she met Harry, exactly forty years ago tonight.

It was her eighteenth birthday party and her parents had invited half the town to their home to celebrate. Edna and her fiance, Charles Ford, were just back from Europe and Charlie was going to drive her to Princeton the following day to begin her freshman year. It was a very exciting time but little did she know how quickly her life would change forever.

It all started with an innocent question. "Who is the little man over there?" Edna asked her best friend Beth when they were alone together by the bar.

"Oh, he's a friend of Barry's I think. His name is Hank or Harry or something."

Beth was already bored with the subject and began reciting the faults of her latest boyfriend. Pretending to listen, Edna was still looking in Harry's or Hank's or something's direction when he turned around and their eyes met. Edna used all her self-control not to laugh.

It's funny how first impressions can be. The Harry she saw at that moment was so different from the man she fell in love with and married. Standing alone was a small lump of a man, staring at her with thick glasses that magnified his eyes to comic proportions. He also had a gapping mouth that reminded her of the trout that her father was always bringing home. He looked so out of place with the other beautiful people at the party that she felt sorry for him.

He kept his eyes on her and soon his fish eye stare was no longer funny and bordered on rudeness. She was going to say something to Charlie but she didn't want to start a scene. The little man didn't seem to be much of a threat. Besides, to her own amazement, she didn't want him to leave. With her growing concern, there was also a stirring deep inside that started to draw her to him, a longing to be near him and a desire to touch him.

This is absurd, she though as she went back to mingle with her friends. She downed her Champaign and tried to put mister fish-face out of her mind. The only problem was that wherever she went the little man would be there, intensely watching her from a distance.

She felt drawn toward him like a moth toward a flame. Her face became flushed and her ears began to ring to the point were she couldn't hear any of the conversations. By the end of the evening she had surrendered to the forces working on her and soon the party was buzzing with the news that Edna had disappeared without saying good-bye to anyone. Not even Charlie knew where she went. No one noticed that the funny little man with the thick glasses had also left the party.

Edna never made it to Princeton. Charlie gave up when Edna refused his calls and returned his letters unopened. A week after the party Edna had left home and abandoned her friends. It wasn't long before everyone heard that she had become Mrs. Harry Puddle and fell of the face of the Earth.

It was a fine memory and she savored it like a fine glass of wine. It was like reliving the end of a fairy tale where the prince and princess sneak out of the ball and live happily ever after. Edna sat quietly on the edge of her chair; her mouth stretched wide in the form of a smile, but with clouded eyes that seemed all but drained of life.

Edna collapsed onto the floor. She struggled to catch her breath but the pain in her head was too great.

Oh my God, she thought. What's happening to me?

The phone was on the coffee table and she tried to crawl to it but her body began to convulse violently. Edna's last conscience thought, before giving in to the approaching darkness, was a silent plea to Harry to please hurry home and help her. The convulsions stopped and Edna lay motionless on the floor. Even the mantle clock had stopped; its hands were frozen at nine twenty-two. Only the faint hush of Edna's shallow breathing gave any sign that she was still alive.

* * *

It was light out when she opened her eyes. Edna tested each of her arms and legs before standing up. Except for the headache she seemed OK. She stood there and stared at the mantle clock, confused about the time till she realized that it had stopped. She figured that it must be eight in the morning.

It's Eight o'clock, thought Edna. Where the hell is Harry! For the first time in her life, Edna was angry with Harry.

"Were the hell is he?" she shouted. "I could have died on that floor while he was out doing God knows with that new secretary he was training."

The implications of what she said shocked her and the anger turned to fear. Could Harry be having an affair with another woman? There was a time when she had the power to dismiss such facts or rationalize such unpleasant thoughts away, but not now. For the first time she no longer had the power.

Edna sat on her chair and tried to weather the emotional storm raging inside of her. She had been sitting for sometime before she noticed that the phone had been ringing. Like a zombie she walked over to the coffee table and lifted the receiver. It was Mrs. Edward's, the wife of Harry's boss, and she appeared to be crying.

"Oh Edna! I'm so sorry about Harry. I just wanted you to know that if there is anything I can do, anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask"

Edna felt the numbness spread throughout her body. When she spoke, it was as if someone else was speaking for her and she was listening from a distance.

"What happened to Harry?" Edna asked.

"Oh my God! Didn't the police call you? Harry was shot in his office. He was with a woman, one of the new girls, and the girl's husband found them and he shot Harry! Oh Edna, I'm sorry to be the one who told you."

Mrs. Edward's was still speaking when Edna hung up the phone. Her feelings or their lack of frightened her. I must be in shock, she thought, for there was no sadness or grief. Only a feeling of relief as if a weight had been lifted off of her allowing freedom of movement for the first time.

She walked up the stairs and sat on her bed. From where she was sitting, Edna could look down the hallway and see the door of Harry's study, which was off limits to everyone. The door was always locked but the key was kept in the top drawer of Harry's night table. She opened the drawer and found the key next to a chrome-plated revolver.

Edna opened the study door and walked into chaos. Posters of super models covered the walls and the floor was ankle deep with magazines and videotapes. It looked like an earthquake had hit the room several times. So this was Harry's special hiding place. It looked more like a teenage clubhouse.

There were two doors; one was a closet door but the other revealed stairs that led up. Edna was shocked. We have an attic? she thought. Why would Harry hide the attic from me? Edna wasn't sure she wanted to find out.

She ascended the steps slowly, keeping her head low because it was dark. She found a string with her outstretched hand and pulled it. A bare bulb from above came to life and revealed a cramped storage area. Almost all-available space was taken up with carefully wrapped items. There were clothes, books, toys, furniture, and hundreds of odds and ends everywhere and every piece of it belonged to Edna. She had found a tomb where the remains of her life had been laid to rest.

All of her dresses, some she brought back from Europe and never wore, hung from wire hangers. Her books, including her Princeton textbooks, were neatly packed in boxes. There were even presents from her birthday party, still unopened after forty years.

Everything was carefully wrapped in clear plastic and stored away. Every square inch seemed to be occupied except for a small walkway that cut through the middle of the attic. Edna followed the path to the other side and came upon her vanity. It had been her mother's and it too was covered in plastic and dust. An old envelope rested on top.

It was addressed to her in Harry's unmistakable chicken scratch. It contained a letter and it was dated several years after they had been married. With trembling hands she read the dead man's words.

My Dearest Edna,

If you are reading this letter then I am no longer among the living. Please forgive me for what I have done. Stealing you away was wrong, but I was deeply in love with you and there was no way that I could have had you unless I used my special gift. Ever since I was young, I've had a knack for making people do things and like me. It takes a lot of work but I'm very good at it. I must tell you that you were my toughest challenge. You have a very strong will and I had to be on top of you all the time.

Since we met, I have dedicated myself to making you the happiest wife in the world. I could have used my gift to become a great man but I gave that up for you. I know you may feel different now but in time you'll agree with me that our years together were the best years of our lives.

I saved all your things from before. I want you to have them back. Without me to make you happy I'm afraid you'll have to pick up your life were you left off.

Remember darling, I loved you until my dying breath.

Your loving husband, Harry.

Crushing the letter in her fist, Edna descended the attic stairs and walked back into her bedroom. She sat on Harry's side of the bed and reached into the drawer and took out the revolver.

My life is gone, she thought. He took it away. My whole future, lost forever.

She looked up at the mirror above bureau and was startled to see an old woman sitting there, staring back at her. It was as if she had fallen asleep at nineteen and woke up forty years later. She studied the aged face and tried to find the remains of that young college bound woman. Only the eyes had not changed. They were still as clear and as bright as before. Edna noticed that woman in the mirror was trembling. She let the letter fall to the floor as she cocked the pistol the way it was done in the movies. Mustering all her will power, Edna reached deep inside of her and searched for the courage to do what needed to be done.

* * *

The unmarked police car parked across the street from the Puddle home. The older detective sat behind the wheel as the rookie confirmed that they were at the right address. Both men exited the car and started to walk across the front lawn when popping noises came from inside the house. By the time they ran to the door the older detective had counted six gunshots. The rookie had drawn his gun as the older man started to bang on the door with his fist.

"Open the door! Police officers!" he shouted. He was about to send his partner around the back when they heard footsteps and a voice from inside. The female voice said, "Hold your horses. Don't shoot the door down, I'm coming!" The door opened and the startled detectives saw an older woman holding a revolver by the barrel. "You boys can have this. I don't need it anymore. It's out of bullets anyway." The older man took the gun from the women and said, "Put the gun away Tom." He sniffed the woman's gun and confirmed that it was the one making all the noise. He then asked, "Are you Mrs. Puddle? Are you married to Harry Puddle?"

"That's correct," she said and then turned around and headed back into the living room. "If you boy's can hold off arresting me for a few moments, I'll be able to make us a pot of tea."

"We didn't come to arrest you Mrs. Puddle," said the older man as he led the way into the house. "I'm sorry to have to say this, but your husband was found murdered last night." The detectives were standing in the living room. A cloud of gun smoke hung in the air like morning fog. Edna faced the detectives and looked at each of them with her severe blue eyes. "Good," she said. "I hope the bastard suffered. Do you gentlemen prefer milk and sugar with your tea?"

Edna walked into the kitchen, leaving the stunned detectives alone to examine the remains of the trophy case. Broken glass was everywhere and a cheap trophy lay on the floor with bullet hole in it. Tom picked it up and examined it. "Well," he said. "The last time I looked trophicide wasn't a crime."

The other detective just shook his head. "I say we get out of here and let the next shift take care of this one. She's off the deep end and needs time to come up for air. Besides, McNeil owes me one." Tom was shaking his head in agreement when Edna returned with a tray of cookies. "Don't worry about the gun officers. It was registered under Harry's name. Would you gentlemen like to sit in the kitchen? It's a bit of a mess in here."

The detectives regained their composure. "Thank you, Mrs. Puddle, but we can't stay," said Tom. "We'll need to have you come down to the station and sign a few papers and collect your husbands belongings. A car will come by tonight and pick you up. They'll call before they come so you'll have time to get ready."

"I'll sign what ever you want," she said, "but I don't want his things. Keep em or throw them away. I don't care what you do with them. I don't care what you do with him either. Is it possible to send his body to a medical school?"

The detectives exchanged glances then headed for the door. "You'll have to discuss that with your attorney, Mrs. Puddle." They told her they would keep the gun at the station and that she could have it back later. They walked back to their car and Edna waved from her doorway as they made a U-turn and headed back into town.

She stood in the doorway and looked out into the world for the first time in a long time. I've been paroled, she thought. My sentence of hard labor has been commuted.

The whistle of the teapot filtered through the house from the kitchen, but Edna did not appear to hear it. She just stood there soaking up the view and the evening sun. Very slowly, almost as if in a dream, she took a step, and then another. Soon she was walking down the little flagstone path. She turned south and headed into town. She recalled the name of a lawyer who was also a friend of the family. He had two of the sweetest little boys she had ever met. Maybe one of them had followed their father's footsteps and opened a practice in town. There was only one way to find out. She needed a lawyer but she also needed a friend. Edna had a lot of catching up to do.


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Harry Had a Knack, 18 February 1998