H and I by James W. Morris

I bought this book, HOW TO WRITE RIGHT! at the library. It was in the leftover bin. Retired, I guess they call it. I was not really looking for something along those lines, but I was intrigued by the price, $2.36. Everything else was $1.00 or $2.00.  $2.36, though?

Then I thought, why not? I have a job where I do practically nothing all day. (City job.) You have to at least look busy, however, and nobody would say anything if they just saw me typing. I’m a receptionist, but there’s hardly ever anyone to receive. I tried to teach myself meditation, but I fell asleep, snoring and drooling, which looks bad. I also wasted some time envisioning various things in the shapes of the water stains on the ceiling, settling on Donald Duck having sex with Denmark. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t see anything else.

After buying the book, I thought to look at the lending history in the back, see how long it had been since it was taken out by anyone. Eight years. No wonder it was retired.

*

First day. Guess I’ll just sort of write my thoughts, kind of a blog, but not for publication. HOW TO WRITE RIGHT! says an author should write first drafts uncritically, “fluently free flowing,” charging ahead, without worrying about everything making sense or correcting grammar or anything. You can go back later for that. Of course, I have spell check on, butt we awl no that’s knot perfect.

Ok, facts: my name is Maria. Thirty-eight years old. Divorced, no children (sore point). My husband’s name was Clement. We started out as kind of innocent horny young dopes and ended up burned out old cynics in just twelve short, yet long, years. 

I guess I really loved him once, but now it seems like another me, an impossibly naïve me, a stupid dream me. Woke the hell up. So—our love was real, but is now to be thought of very much in the past tense. My mother says Clement is a “crumb bum.” Mom was never one to hold back on expressing opinions, but whatever tiny bit of restraint she might have had once is now completely gone, due to the fact she has mild dementia, even though she’s only sixty-six. The future does not bode well, I believe is the phrase. Mom says her dementia is a myth—in fact, she has a saying she relies on when the subject is brought up: “It’s not dementia—I just don’t give a rat’s ass.”

If I made her a T-shirt with that phrase on it, would it be in bad taste?

Anyhow, Mom is right about Clement, although I’m not exactly sure what “crumb bum” actually means. The phrase seems to suit him, though, as he is both crummy and bummy. Really, even though I was young and unworldly, I feel like I should have known. I mean, what kind of fucking name is Clement?

This place I work in? It’s an ancient deteriorating one-time rich family’s mansion in one of those Philadelphia neighborhoods that were once all ritzy, then went downhill due to crimes and drugs and poverty and such, but is now making a big-time comeback. Poorer people (mostly of color) are moving out, and richer people (mostly of whiteness) are moving in. Shiny apartment complexes are being erected next to boarded-up rowhouses. The city owns this building—they have temporary rooms here for people who need non-emergency medical help, rehab or monitoring or whatever, displaced people the city is responsible for. There are non-violent arrestees waiting for room to open up in prison hospital wards, homeless too sick to go back out on the streets, and half-dead “difficult” feebs who were kicked out of hospitals for various reasons, the most common reason, I think, being that they ran out of insurance. We have one cheerful pint-sized old guy here who just speaks gibberish. He had no ID when the cops found him sleeping in one of those big planters near city hall. The man is kind of frail but not exactly sick. What would you do with him?

My desk is round for no discernable reason, made of light wood, and it is really the only thing in the lobby, which is cavernous, with high ceilings. It’s pretty echo-y here due to the gold-colored marble floors which run half-way up the walls. You have to be careful when you fart, sounds like a gunshot.

There are no visitors. Nobody wants our people.

Second day of writing. Well, something happened.

I fell in love.

Kidding. But sort of not.

I was still standing, just getting set up, putting my things away, when I spied this guy through the smeary glass of the front door. He was tall, lanky tall, with thick, prematurely gray hair and a sad expression. But his face: holy crap—so handsome, illegally handsome. I might as well admit on this private page that I was as attracted to the sadness as the handsomeness, though. I’ve got a thing for needy, woebegone guys. Cf. Clement, the Ex.

Mister Handsome was studying the building. He was hesitant, clearly not sure he was presenting himself at the right place. 

I thought about my appearance while I had the chance, wishing I had spent more time ironing my skirt this morning. Also, I had put my makeup on at the stoplights, which is never conducive to producing my best work.

And was there some way to lose fifteen pounds in ten seconds?

Oh well, I thought, smoothing my skirt. He’s going to have to love me the way I am.

Ha.

Mister Handsome decided he was at the right place, approached and opened the creaky door, then stepped inside the lobby, ducking his head. A tall person’s habit. This was not necessary, since our ceilings are, like, thirty feet high.

He saw me, approached my desk, and smiled.

I had an orgasm.

All right, not an orgasm, exactly, at least not the whahaa, whahaa, whahaa kind. More of a little bip. But enough to make a girl all wobbly in the knees.

I tried to perch myself sexily on my chair, but my ass just caught the edge of it, and the chair—which is on wheels—started to roll backward. I then rather awkwardly hopped up onto the seat a little farther to keep from sliding all the way to the floor, and when I did that I reflexively raised one foot to steady myself. That foot clanged hard against the already-dented two-drawer filing cabinet, and the half-full coffee cup sitting on top of it wobbled for a second, then toppled over, pouring coffee into my purse.

Yes, what man could stop himself from loving me? It’s the grace. They all respond to grace.

Mr. Handsome’s smile disappeared.

Whoa, he said. You okay there?

All polite concern. But probably he was thinking, Who is this dipshit?

Third day—lots to report. I learned Mr. Handsome’s name yesterday, which I won’t include here, because it wouldn’t be fair to him. I’ll just call him H. I recognized H’s name, but for the life of me could not recall the context in which I’d heard it. Usually I’m good with names. I have to be, as a receptionist; nothing is worse than a receptionist who is bad with names. Ok, well—I guess come to think of it there are lots of things worse than a receptionist who is bad with names—serial killers, terrorists, people who talk in movie theaters—but you know what I mean.

H was reporting for work, as he will be painting the place. I liked that idea very, very, very much—it means he’ll be around for a while. If they gave him a really small brush it could take years. Then it would time to start over. But later, while I was having a pretend-casual conversation with Vince, the maintenance guy, it became clear H was sent to work here as the result of court-mandated community service. This meant H was a convicted criminal of some kind. 

I was appalled, of course.

Well, just a little excited, maybe. I’ll admit that here, between you and me. It depended on what he did, though. If he committed a crime of conscience—standing in the way of heartless developers trying to bulldoze ancient redwoods, for example—I could probably forgive him and it might still work out between us.

I took a bath when I got home, and looked down at my body in the steaming water. It’s still pretty good, I think. A little soft maybe. I always intend to work out, rarely get around to it. An irrational part of me thinks I should get some kind of credit, have a few pounds deducted, for at least sincerely intending to exercise. I’m not sure who I should complain to, though.  

I have some stretch marks—not from childbirth, mind you. No, on my hips, from the rapid onset of curviness at puberty. I don’t spend much time wishing I were lighter-skinned, but I do hear a paler complexion not only generates an aura of white privilege, it also de-emphasizes things like stretch marks and scars.

So anyway, while soaking, I started thinking: H had clearly done something wrong, had offended society in some way. I had to accept that. He was, therefore, a man needing to be rehabilitated.   

I looked down at my body again. Well, there is something known to “redeem” certain men. 

Yeah, I’m gonna say it.

The love of a good woman.

HOW TO WRITE RIGHT! says a person should write every day, not only on days when feeling inspired, even if what results is only a sentence or two, even if there seems to be nothing meaningful to say in those sentences. The idea is to form a habit.

This is my way of saying I obviously haven’t formed the habit yet. I forgot to write on Friday—I spent most of the day taking the minutes at a succession of really boring departmental meetings—and I’m not allowed to take my city-owned laptop home for the weekend. I guess I didn’t think about such things when I started this project. In the beginning, though, it was just a time-wasting activity. Now I guess it’s a way to think out loud about my interest in H.

So, to catch up: on Friday morning, I happened to be in the parking lot when H hopped off the bus and passed by me on his way into the building. He recognized me and nodded.

Today, Monday, I happened (ahem) to be standing by my car in the exact same spot at the exact same time when H hopped off the bus and passed by me on his way into the building. Today, he nodded and smiled.

What names should we give the children?

Today is Tuesday. So—yesterday, Monday afternoon, I was taking my late break at the little rickety table in the corner of the break room, eyes closed, with my head resting against the candy machine. It hums, and it’s warm. It’s a pretty relaxing thing to do actually, though I guess people might find it weird. Still—in this place—I’m considered one of the sane ones. Which tells you something right there.

A soft male voice said, Hey? Maria?

I opened my eyes and there was H, draped in his cloak of handsomeness. Or whatever invisible pulsating thing Nature endowed him with that makes him so irresistible to forlorn receptionists.

He was wearing painter’s togs and had a smear of institutional beige paint on his chin.  Adorable.

Sorry to disturb, H said. But can I ask you a question? Might seem kind of like it’s out of left field.

Sure, I said.

How do you pronounce your last name?

I told him.

Then he did this thing. He closed his (lovely gray) eyes and repeated my name. Like he was memorizing it for posterity. (If men only knew—the trait women find most attractive is not great abs but the ability to listen, the willingness to pay attention.)

H laughed a little.

Okay, thanks, he said. And walked away.

Now, I don’t know how other people, like men, think. But a woman like me will take a trivial interaction like this with someone they are attracted to and analyze the hell out of it, looking for every possible real or imagined implication. I thought most of the implications of the preceding interaction were pretty good.

First, he felt free to approach me in a friendly way. (Found me approachable.)

Second, he asked me a strange question. (He must have seen my full name in print—on the meeting minutes, maybe—and was curious, for whatever reason, about how to pronounce my surname, which is admittedly unusual. What did it mean, this curiosity?)

Third, I should have asked him to sit down. He caught me off guard, though. If he had sat, we could have taken our sweet old time and talked about any topic he desired—names, the best places for destination weddings, etc.

Kidding.

But sort of not.

That night, I decided it was finally time for me to look H up on the internet, see if I could determine what crime he had committed, a task I’d been resolutely putting off.

H had killed the mayor’s niece.

Yeah, well. I hesitate to put the details down here, even though I don’t expect anyone but me to see these pages. 

Start over, Maria. 

I found some newspaper articles online. The incident occurred a year and a half ago. The mayor’s niece was a student at Temple University, which is not far from here, as the pigeon flies, actually. It was late at night. She was at a party, but she wasn’t drunk—she was a gifted musician, a cellist I think, and had a recital in the morning. Horsing around on the front stoop of a rowhouse with some friends, she pulled away playfully, crossed the sidewalk, and stepped into the street. She was looking behind her, not at oncoming traffic. H, driving north on Broad Street, banged into her with his car, a big SUV. The niece’s body travelled twenty-two feet. Out of her shoes. Her head bounced on the asphalt.

H did the right thing. Stopped. Sprinted out of the car. Didn’t hesitate. Dropped to his knees. Cradled her as she died.

Anyhow, H was arrested. He was speeding (50 in a 35), and had alcohol in his system, though less than the legal limit. One of the articles posed a series of questions: Whose fault was it, really? Would H get a fair trial since the girl’s uncle ran the city? Would H have been able to stop quicker if he hadn’t had two glasses of wine at a book signing? (H was an adjunct professor at Drexel and wrote articles on religion and such. He contributed a chapter on atheism for an anthology called BELIEF.) In the end (according to a follow-up article), H lost everything—his license, his marriage, and his job. And he got three months in jail followed by an additional three months in a half-way house with community service. That’s what brought him to me.

So. 

What was I thinking? A school-girl infatuation. I don’t have room in my life for a romance anyhow. Dealing with Mom and her issues takes up nearly all my free time and energy…

Let me say first of all that it has been more than a month since I wrote last. I have had no other significant interactions with H. 

HOW TO WRITE RIGHT! says writing is a way of thinking, and during the last few weeks I have been thinking that I have been lying to myself, that I put down incomplete information here, implying I had abandoned my interest in H due to an attack of high principles, so aghast was I at what he had done.

That implication was, I have to admit, a lie.

Let me explain. I really didn’t give up on H based on the news accounts of his actions; I surrendered my interest only after I did some further research, doing a deeper dive on the internet, and came across a photograph taken at the accident scene. Another Temple student, an amateur photographer, who just happened to be passing, had lifted his ever-present camera to his eye, reflexively you might say, and took a photo now considered by many a work of art. Except it’s so terrible.

The picture is deeply shadowed. The streetlight, directly overhead, had one of those awful amber bulbs the city uses. They give everything a timeless, eternal, sepia-tinged quality. The girl’s face—well, it was a beautiful face, but the eyes in the picture, though open, are clearly looking up at nothing. Her head is on H’s left knee, his left hand supporting it; his right arm is draped familiarly across her slim waist. Two parked cars, out of focus, frame the scene; H’s own car, door open, lurks in the background, sending steam up into the sky.

I had never seen the photo before, but apparently it was picked up by some news services, and was all over the internet. If you’ve seen it, you know—there’s something immutable there. If I’m using that word right. The photo looks posed—artfully, purposefully posed. Like figures in those Renaissance religious paintings.

It is H’s face, the expression on his face, that compelled my interest. Though partially obscured by shadow, the expression is still an instantly recognizable, chilling depiction of unalloyed anguish. At that captured moment the person who was H disappeared, I think: he exceeded his humanity and became something else, a vessel of pure sorrow. 

So.

To set the record straight: I gave up my crush on H because I am a realist (or coward)—an ordinary, limited, everyday love like the sort I might offer him could never be more than transient. It could never prevail, could never outshine such gorgeous grief.

James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His first novel, RUDE BABY, was recently published, and is available worldwide. More info at www.jameswmorris.com.