Harold kept his head down as he walked through the warehouse to the street. The bloody carcasses and the chill of death triggered memories he tried to keep buried. Once he hit the riverfront, he could breathe easy. Late spring in Savannah meant the heat was on its way back to town, bringing with it the humidity and misery that spelled summer. Unlike most, Harold welcomed summer. He made peace with that misery. He wore one of his favorite rayon Aloha shirts that sported palm trees and hula dancers against a red background. It was just the right weight for this season, as the sticky breeze from the river cooled his skin. One good thing about working for yourself, a man never again had to wear either a uniform or a suit, unless he chose to do so.
The slight hitch in his game leg became less noticeable once he stretched it out and the muscles unclamped a little. The pain was always simmering, however, his permanent reminder of the war. As if he needed one.
“Hey, Harold, how’s it hanging?” One of the dockworkers called out to him and raised a vicious looking crate hook in salutation. Harold smiled, tipped his brim, and responded,
“Hanging long, Jim. You?”
“Never better. Spot you a beer after shift?”
“If I’m around. I’m working a case.”
“Swell! Then you can buy the brew. I’ll look for you at Louie’s.”
Jim was a former high school chum, one of a few that Harold liked enough to stay in touch. When he was twelve, a freak accident with a BB gun cost Jim his left eye. “If you’re not careful,” every mother warned after that. “You’ll end up like poor Jimmy Miller with only one eye!” In his own way, Jim became a legend at an early age.
His glass eye matched the other one well enough, but sometimes it drifted out of focus, giving him the expression of a wall-eyed calf. The other kids were cruel to him, in the way only kids can be cruel to each other. Harold became Jim’s defender, and that cemented their friendship. Jim liked to say he had a “one-eye” exemption from the war, instead of a 4-F. Staying back gave Jim the choice of a lot of stranded and lonely women. He eventually married a good, steady girl named Carolyn. Both Jim and Carolyn kept up a correspondence with Harold when he was overseas. Their mail was one of a few links with home that kept Harold sane.
“Okay, I’ll come around,” Harold owed Jim many beers, so he knew he should make good on it when he could.
The riverside was a tricky walkway. Dodging crates and warehousemen, Harold filtered the fishy smell that was the legacy of this sluggish waterway. Finally the footbridge was ahead, leading to Bay Street across the inlet. Harold paused on the bridge to lean his back against the rail and drop his heel over the edge so he could stretch the tight muscles of his calf. The doc’s told him that walking was good for his leg. The more he used it, the stronger it would get. They didn’t warn him about the pain that came from using it. His injury had been much worse in the beginning, true enough. First, he was flat on his back for weeks, then a wheelchair, then a cane. Now he needed no assistance to get around, except for those days the leg seized on him and he couldn’t even get out of bed. The incidents of down time were fewer, but he couldn’t say they were gone, or that they ever would be gone. He saw himself growing less mobile and more agonized as he got older. Harold’s personal view of his future was not shiny and bright.
He paused at a drug store on his way to his landlord’s office. He needed aspirin, smokes, and decided to treat himself to a burger at the lunch counter. Breaking a c-note was his challenge, since the only money he had other than that was the seventy-three cents in change with which he started his day.
The cashier, who was so young she didn’t look like she should be out of school, offered him a big smile as he put his goods down for her to ring up. Her ruby red lipstick had rubbed off on her teeth, so when she smiled she looked as if someone had slammed a fist into her chops. Harold was used to pretty girls smiling at him. He was, like his father before him, a handsome man. His face had strong bones, a square jaw and a solid, clefted chin. His mother passed her eye color on to him, as green as the river but flecked with gold, like a rich claim waiting to be panned. His nose was not small, but it was straight with a narrow bridge, and his skin was always clear, showing none of the weariness of life. He kept his dark auburn hair cut short and combed close, but there was a lot of it. Baldness was not a family curse.
“Wasted beauty,” his mother used to bitterly complain when she looked at her only son. “Men aren’t meant to be beautiful. It will only ruin your life.”
Harold supposed his father’s endless infidelities that led to his eventual demise at the wrong end of a jealous husband’s Colt .45 fueled her bitterness. The women who chose to sleep with his old man did so based on something other than his fortune, since he worked hard on the docks, but was always broke, always behind on rent, always scraping up change to pay for the heat in winter and to put food on their table. Harold never thought it was looks that got his father in with the ladies. Instead he believed it was his father’s easy charm and ability to make people laugh and feel good about life. Even Harold. Everyone except Harold’s mother, that is, who stopped laughing long before the shooting. She drank herself to death a year after she was widowed, dying in an alcohol-induced coma. Harold was thirteen at the time.
“I’ll have to get my manager to break this bill,” the cashier said, her bloody smile growing larger since she thought the c-note reflected Harold’s financial stability. What a knee slapper that was, Harold thought to himself. The manager, who had extended credit to Harold before, but not lately, cracked the bill in his hands as he gave his customer the once over.
“This looks brand new.”
“Hot off the press in my basement.”
“Is that a joke?”
Harold sighed. “Yes, it’s a joke. I can’t draw a straight line, let alone engrave a plate. Will you just cash the damned thing?”
The man acted as if it were his own money that he doled out from under the tray of the register. Harold carefully counted his change, picked up his bag and sat at the end of the counter, ordering a burger and a cola without even glancing at the menu. The cola arrived first, so he opened the new aspirin bottle and swallowed three tablets, washing them down with sweet fizz.
“Hi ya, handsome.” Crimson claws on his shoulder. He looked back at a curvaceous blonde in a red sundress that left her shoulders bare and highlighted her headlights that were high and firm. She lowered her tinted glasses as she smiled. Her face was as good as her body and her hair, brightened with peroxide, was coiffed in perfect waves around that face. He smiled back at her.
“Hi ya, Frannie.”
“Come into an inheritance?” She teased, causing Harold to laugh.
“Better. Got a paying client.”
“Good for you, fella! Your grandma will be so proud. So what wife is cheating on what husband?”
“Frannie, you know I never tell. It’s not about that. Not this time.”
“Your grandma will be even more proud.” They both knew Harold’s grandmother had a strong intolerance for cheaters of any stripe. She had been a bookkeeper by profession, and she never mislaid a dime in those ledgers.
Harold could not have survived without his grandmother. She raised him after he was orphaned, and owned the house where he still lived in an apartment above her garage. She cared for him in his convalescence, and even now, as poor as they were, and with age draining her of so much of her vitality, she was the one person in the world who put Harold first. He reminded himself to pick up some of that scented talcum powder she favored on his way out. It was a little luxury she wouldn’t expect and that he could afford, for once.
Frannie was their next-door neighbor. Soon she would be stretching out that luscious body on a quilt in her backyard, wearing only a brief swimsuit so she could tan that pretty skin. There were worse sights on a hot summer day. Women wrote Frannie off as a chippie, since she was so glamorous, and since she wasn’t hooked to any man. They feared that fact put all of their men into the game. Harold knew better about Frannie. They shared a common tragedy: both of them had the life kicked out of them by the war.
Frannie was a war widow who, as far as Harold could tell, never even dated in all the years since her husband was shot out of the sky over Germany. Plenty of men tried, but she stayed true to her loving memory of her lost man. Seemed like a waste to him, but her overtures in his direction were only in fun, and they both knew it. Her real interest was in raising her eight-year old twins, a boy and a girl, who were, in Harold’s opinion, pure evil. She deserved better than those nasty and demanding kids. Frannie was thirty-four. Conventions of the day considered that too old to be matched with a man of twenty-eight like Harold, He knew that age played no role in what kept them friends instead of something more. The real reasons were complicated, but permanent. Since nothing would ever come of it, they could both enjoy the ruse of flirtation, without any of the pressure.
“Care to join me? I’d be pleased to buy you a burger.” Frannie had fed him often enough. Harold always made sure his grandmother had food, even if he didn’t. Sometimes that left him in hope that some friend would spot him a meal without being asked, because he would never ask for such charity. Frannie was always eager to do so, and she wrapped the free meal with some little chore around the house that “only Harold” could do, so he would feel like less of a ne’er do well.
“I can’t,” she spread a hand on her stomach. “I tried on my swimsuit today and it was pitiful. I need to lose five pounds fast.”
He took in her perfect hourglass shape and shook his head. “No, you don’t. But I’ll buy you some plain toast and some weak tea, if you insist.”
“How about a green salad?”
“You’re on. Rabbit food it is.”
She sat next to him and ordered her salad and unsweetened tea, which was heresy in Georgia. Iced tea was meant to be served with enough sugar syrup to make your teeth hurt at the first sip. Harold noticed that her shopping bag contained a few jars of mysterious female beauty potions, but also some paper dolls and a wooden paddle with a ball on a rubber string, gifts for her spoiled brats. Summer also meant those kids would be out of school and around more. That fact was a summer dread even Harold couldn’t avoid. Frannie didn’t live lavishly, but she did live comfortably. Her husband had the foresight to take out an insurance policy before he went to war. Now his family was held together by that foresight.
Too bad Harold’s free-wheeling father hadn’t been so thoughtful. In order to keep a roof over their head, Harold’s grandmother worked her bookkeeping job at the cotton mill until she was just too old to do so. Now, because she was frail, it fell to Harold to ensure she had a home and food. He wasn’t doing a bang up job in that department. But whatever else he let slip, he always paid up his own insurance policy. His grandmother was his beneficiary, just in case.
“Guess who’s coming to see me in June?” Frannie asked as she squeezed a wedge of lemon into her tea.
“Do I look like a detective?” He teased, causing her to laugh as she gazed at his loud shirt.
“In Hawaii, maybe. My cousin, from Alabama. You know, Harold, I’ve told you all about her. She’s twenty-four, a schoolteacher, unmarried. She got all the looks in the family, but she’s picky.”
“Don’t,” Harold warned with a shake of his head. “Don’t do that, Frannie.”
“Don’t do what?” She was all blonde innocence.
“Don’t try fixin’ me up. What’s this cousin done to you to make you do a mean thing like that to her?”
Their food arrived and Frannie cast a longing look at Harold’s burger and fries before glaring at her offending salad. “Why not? You’re single, she’s single, why shouldn’t I? You need to get out, Harold. It’s no good, a man living on his own. You’re just too shy.”
“I’m not shy,” he used a knife to coax the ketchup out of the bottle. “I’m just not interested. Tell you what, Frannie, when you start going out, I will, too.”
“That’s different,” she snatched a fry off his plate. “Bill was the love of my life. I don’t plan to settle for less. Are you telling me that tramp ex wife of yours was the love of your life?”
He cut his eyes to glare at her pretty face as he said, “Laura’s not a tramp, Frannie.”
“She ran off with your partner, didn’t she?”
“Some things about that occurrence that you don’t know, Frannie.”
“This is what I know. While you were overseas, fighting for our country and almost being killed, she was getting busy with that partner of yours. The man had some 4-F that no one really understood, seeing as he looked so healthy and all.”
“He had a busted eardrum, Frannie. That’s no bull.”
“Be that as it may, no one looked too kindly on women with husbands at war who saw fit to tramp around town with another man.”
“I’m telling you there are things you don’t know. Laura didn’t ‘Dear John’ me while I was gone, which she might’ve done. When I got back, all busted up, she hung around until I was on my feet. Give her that.”
“Why are you so kind-spirited where that tramp is concerned?”
“Don’t keep calling her that, Frannie. Please.”
“Okay, for you, I won’t. But answer my question.”
“It’s personal. Things happen between people. Laura put up with plenty.”
“She was lucky enough to get her man back from the war, and this is how she repays that luck? A lot of us didn’t have that good fortune, Harold.”
He reached over and patted her hand gently. He suspected her outrage had more to do with Bill than with her defense of his own honor. Almost everything got back to Bill with Frannie. “If I could trade places with Bill, send him home to you and the twins, and take his place in that grave, I would.”
She spread her hand on his face as tears welled up in her eyes. “I swear you mean that, Harold.”
“Well, we’re happy to have you back, so don’t say that kind of thing,” she dabbed her eyes with a napkin, careful of her mascara. “On a happier note, this new job of yours. Enough to pay off your back rent?”
“And then some.”
“You know I’d have loaned you the money, Harold.”
“Never take money from friends,” he said with a solid smile. “You do enough for Grandma and me.” Whenever Frannie baked, she made extra for her neighbors. She may not be the world’s best cook, but her heart was in the right place. And when Harold was overseas, Frannie kept an eye on his grandmother, shopping for her if she was unable, seeing that the money he sent home went into the older woman’s account at the bank. Even when she was going through the worst of her grieving, Frannie never lost sight of her elderly neighbor’s needs. No one would dare say a bad word about Frannie in the presence of either Harold or his grandmother. After they finished their lunch, Harold asked the waitress, “What kind of pie is that?”
“Cherry. Fresh made this morning.”
“I’ll have a slice with some vanilla ice cream on the side.”
“I hate you,” Frannie declared, as Harold smiled and amended his order,
“Make it two.”
Frannie didn’t argue, deciding that fate had intervened in the form of her lanky, handsome neighbor, so her swimsuit would just have to stretch.