I told Harry not to bother me when I was reading.
I first encountered him at Starbucks. I was with my friend Lori, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We had so much to talk about: friends we’d loved and jobs we hadn’t and how to bake a ham. Seriously, our pressing topics ranged from the life-changing to the family-feeding, dancing over the tops of a dozen other issues in-between.
We tucked ourselves into a corner table in the back, and we bent appreciatively over our steaming brews. Lori had a fragrant vanilla latte; I had my trusty decaf Americano. And we talked. We had just moved into a discussion of her youngest daughter’s exciting summer program (Jorie has a scholarship to space camp) when we became aware of a little man, pacing the length of the coffee shop.
A short fellow, his sweep of reddish hair, peckled with gray, swirled back off his forehead– the way guys used to do it in Brylcreem days. His pale, lashless blue eyes look oversized and uncomfortably close behind thick, thick lenses. His chin receded, but his belly did not, and his tight, short-sleeved plaid shirt did nothing to disguise that fact. His pants—well, he went in big for the Ed Grimley look, that little guy did. He was sort of pixie-ish, and I would have thought, “Endearing,” if he hadn’t looked so angry.
His face was pinched and tomato-red, and he hugged a fancy leather portfolio, papers jutting out at every angle, tight to his chest. He’d stalk up and glare at us and then disappear. We’d lapse back into conversation only to feel the heat of laser-eye glare and look up to see him again.
“Oh, Lord,” whispered Lori, when he’d gone for the fourth time. “Do you remember him?”
Did he look familiar? Maybe?
Nope. Nothing clicked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“He is a character. He was my advisee at Central State when you taught there,” she said. “He always registered late, and he always wanted to get into your writing class, and it was always full.”
“Well,” I said, dubiously. “I guess that’s flattering. Right?”
“He used to yell at me,” said Lori. “‘Find me a spot!’ he’d say. He’d kind of jump up and down. His hair would flop up and down, like in one big shellacked chunk. He always reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. Once I had to tell him to calm down or I’d call Security.”
She sipped her latte and narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. “Harry Critt,” she said. “That’s his name. I was really glad when I became a director and didn’t have to deal with him one-on-one anymore.”
He was heading back toward us when the barista called, “Harry! Your frap is ready!”
Harry swiveled abruptly and almost ran to the counter.
We decided that was a good time to make our exit; we slipped quietly out the back door, leaving Harry to his pacing.
Right around when that happened, I was whining to Mark about not having time to read. Reading, I had thought, would be my retirement default mode. And recently, I had accumulated a wonderful stack of bought and borrowed books. I had Hidden Figures; we had just watched the film and I couldn’t wait to get more background on the story of those women.
And I wondered at the depiction of John Glenn in the film; Glenn grew up,–he and Annie both, actually,–maybe twenty miles from here. So I had a copy of his memoir. Somehow I’d missed one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles back in the day, so when I saw a copy of The Moon By Night on a sale table, I had to pick it up. And I had a copy of Ready Player One, too; it’s a Great American Read book, after all.
And then I read an interview with a woman who lived near Toledo; it was on a reading blog and the woman said she’d become a confirmed reader because of Nancy Drew, and I thought, “Wait. Wasn’t Nancy Drew’s author from Toledo?” So I ordered a copy of Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak; that was the story of the women who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote Nancy Drew, and yes, Mildred Wirt was from Toledo. And the book was fascinating; it read like a compelling novel, and I never had enough time to sit down and just read for an hour.
And of course, I had some nice, light, mystery series volumes to cleanse the reading palette.
But there was always something to write or clean or paint or do; there were rides to be given and cookies to be baked and floors to be mopped and weeds to be pulled. I’d try to read, but unfinished chores pinched and pulled me.
“I thought,” I wailed to Mark, “that when I retired I’d get more reading done!”
And he said, “Well, just take a break and read in the afternoon.”
But I couldn’t, I told him; I couldn’t relax into reading when there was work to be done. The dishes screamed at me; the weeds sang a taunting song; James sighed heavily from in front of his computer, wishing he had a ride to somewhere.
“I can’t stand it,” I said. “I can’t concentrate with all that NOISE.”
“Then go someplace ELSE and read,” said Mark.
I thought that was brilliant.
The first time, I went to Panera. I ordered a decaf and a cinnamon scone. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and not very busy, and I found a little two-person table in the quiet back. I put my purse and my jacket on the other chair to discourage anyone who might feel sorry for my solitariness and decide to sit.
And I opened Girl Sleuth and took a big slug of decaf, and I relaxed into the chair, and I began to read.
I was lost in the tale of Edward the genius and Harriet his daughter and Mildred the Iowa girl with gumption when a noisy, throat-clearing rattle jounced me out of that wonderful other world. I looked and there was Harry Critt.
“Pardon me,” he said, with a cocky little half-smile.
I looked at him for a long pause.
“Yes?” I said icily. “As you see, I am reading.”
“You teach writing,” said Harry.
“I DID teach writing. Once. I am retired now, and I barely remember a thing about it.”
“She never got me into your class,” said Harry darkly. “But now you’re retired and you have time.”
He lowered the leather portfolio, broke into a full-on grin, and made to sit down.
I kicked my foot up onto the chair, next to my purse and jacket.
“Don’t sit,” I said bluntly. “I am READING.”
“But that’s what I want you to do!” And Harry smiled. “You can read my work. I have here,” and he flourished the leather portfolio; three papers fluttered out, landing on the table beside me and the floor, “my journal. Wait just a minute.”
Harry scrambled around and got his errant papers; he shoved them back into the portfolio.
“Now today,” he said, “as we don’t really know each other very well yet, I thought The War Years would be a very good starting point. That will tell you a lot about me. And I’d like your advice on the action scenes. I don’t,” he said, and he ducked his head shyly, “know if I made myself seem a little too heroic. Although of course, I stuck completely to the facts.”
“Harry,” I said, “I’m going to be very direct, because I have great respect for writers. I WANT TO READ MY BOOK. I need you to leave me alone.”
He looked at me incredulously.
“The history society might be very interested in hearing about your war years,” I suggested. “And there’s a writers’ group in town that you could join. They read each other’s work and give exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.”
“But I don’t want to work with them,” said Harry. “I want to work with YOU. And I am not leaving until you read at least a page of my stuff.”
I stood up and gathered my things.
“I AM leaving, though, Harry,” I said firmly. “I wish you enjoyment in your writing, but I am not going to read it. Not now, and not another day. Try the writers’ group, Harry.”
His mouth dropped open, and I left him like that. Just as I got to the exit, he warbled, “But you taught a class in personal journaling!”
Goodbye, Harry, I thought, and, mood broken, I went home and made some broth and mopped the kitchen floor.
The next day, I was on the stationary bike at the gym, when who should come around the corner of the track but Harry. He had long baggy shorts on, and a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, and a stretchy white terrycloth band wrapped around his forehead.
And he clutched his portfolio, papers streaming.
My son James was on the bicycle next to me.
“That’s the guy,” I hissed loudly.
Jim ceased pedaling and glared at Harry.
Harry stopped. Blood rushed to his face. His eyes bulged. He spun around on one sneakered foot and hurried away.
That night Mark and I had a date night dinner at a little roadhouse-y kind of a restaurant. Mark went off to the men’s room, and I went and got the table. I had just nabbed the chair by the window when I saw Harry charge through the entrance and bear down upon me. He waved the portfolio triumphantly.
He almost slammed into Mark, who said, “Watch it, buddy.”
Harry stopped, snorting. And when Mark sat down across from me, Harry actually stamped his shiny black shoe. I could see what Lori meant; he DID look kind of Rumple-y. But he spun himself around and left.
“Is THAT the guy?” asked Mark, and I allowed that it was.
“He looks a little off-balance,” Mark said. “If this doesn’t stop, I think we need to report it.”
I nodded grimly. Then we opened our menus; we forgot all about Harry and had a lovely time.
The next day was one of those perfect summer days—75 and cloudless blue skies, and the air was light and fresh, with not one hint of humidity. I spent the morning at the computer and finished up a whole lot of work, and then I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned floors and danced through the house decluttering surfaces. I mowed the backyard, and then Mark came home for lunch.
We ate salads on the patio, and he said, “You know what you ought to do? Take your book and go over to the Garden. You’re always saying you want to do that. You could sit by the pond and read in peace.”
The Garden! Acres of land, carved out of the middle of neighborhoods and alleyways; it had the pond and a waterfall and a rustic Japanese tea house. It had trails and benches; it felt removed, but one was never more than a quick shout away from connection.
“That, my friend,” I said to Mark, “is a wonderful idea.”
By 1:30, breezes riffled my hair as I sat on a comfy wooden bench and lost myself in a light summer story about a Midwestern librarian who also solved mysteries. The water shooshed softly, and, through the buffer of trees and bushes, I could hear the gentle thrum of car tires on neighborhood streets. But mentally I was sitting in a cool quiet library, where Hattie, the librarian, was conversing with the director of the local history society. Some papers were missing, important ones; the historian thought maybe they’d wound up at the library, somehow.
And then I heard the stomping little footsteps. God help me, there was Harry.
“Finally,” he breathed, as he marched up the path, veering off in front of my bench. “Today you ARE going to read The War Years, and we’ll have no more nonsense!”
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.
“Harry,” I said. “This is outrageous. Have you been following me?”
His face went from white to purple in a blink.
“Outrageous?” he spluttered. “What’s outrageous is a writing teacher who won’t teach writing. You don’t need to read THIS—” and he reached out, snatched my book, and threw it onto the grass behind him, “—when you can read THIS!” He thrust the portfolio under my nose.
“I was READING, Harry!” I shouted, and hot anger swelled up in me. I stood up to push him away and grab my book, and the ground seemed to shift.
At first I thought it was just Harry, bouncing up and down; he was jumping and screaming and telling me that it was time to do as he said. I hit 9-1 with my thumb, and then I realized it wasn’t Harry making the ground move.
It was my book. It had righted itself so it was standing, open, behind agitated Harry, and it was growing. Quickly. It was as high as Harry’s knees, and still he yelled, and it was up to his shoulders, and he screamed at me to take his portfolio, and then it was towering over him.
I reached out a hand, and I think Harry thought I was finally going to take his damned journal. He stopped bouncing and settled, and his expression calmed. He took the portfolio in both hands and began to bestow it on me.
“Harry,” I said calmly. “Harry. If you don’t go away right now, I going to slap you inside of this book and call the cops.”
“No,” he said, and foamy spittle flew from his lips. “No. You are reading The War Years, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Then some kind of addled recognition dawned, and his face froze. “Book?” he croaked.
I swear the looming book told me what to do. I grabbed a cover in each hand and I swung them inwards, trapping Harry inside. There was a snapping, clicking feeling as the pages aligned and the covers pressed them tight together. Harry’s voice, muffled, screeched just briefly, and there was a momentary bulge in the book. And then there was silence.
The bulge smoothed out, and the book fell over on its side, and smoothly, seamlessly, it returned to its proper size.
I picked it up.
I walked home, glazed with shock, and I tried to figure out what to do. I paged through the book; the pages were pristine. There was not a spot of blood or sweat. Harry was just gone.
I tried to tell Mark about it later, but he gave me that look. I put the book aside; I stacked twelve heavy books on top of it, and I started reading Ready Player One instead.
But it bothered me; it bothered me and it would not let me go. Finally, I called someone I really felt would listen and advise, a teacher from my grad school days, Professor Ramming. I used to visit the Prof in his book-lined office. He would often be standing precariously on his wheeled desk chair, taking down a book or sliding one back into place, and his other-where eyes would tell me he was inhabiting whatever place he was just then reading about.
The Prof was a deeply literate man who knew the power of books; my gut said he could help me.
Professor Ramming listened to my story, and he sighed a wheezy sigh.
“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Do you still have the book?”
I admitted I did.
“Get it,” he said. When I returned, he told me to open to where I’d left off.
And, oh, my gawd: there was Harry. Harry stole the papers from the history society: he stole them, and he claimed them as his own War Years journal! I skimmed through the pages. There was a chase scene in the library stacks where the thief was ignominiously tackled by the svelte but fit librarian. On page 192, the local authorities came and took Harry away. He was howling about his story of The War Years as they dragged him to the cruiser.
I read my old teacher the part about his exit, and then we both stopped talking for a bit.
Finally, “Professor Ramming,” I asked, “did I just dream this?”
Again with the wheezy sigh.
“No,” he said, slowly. “Harry escaped from his narrative. It happens. It happens when someone gets so involved in a book that the characters become real to them. They see their chance to slip into the real world, to take on flesh and bone, and to exist where blood pulses and food has taste and the warm summer breezes excite their papery skins. But something is always missing for them, and they always wind up revealing themselves.
“For Harry, it was a need to have his journal validated. He was probably delusional in the book, and he carried those delusions into our world with him. You,” said Professor Ramming, “were lucky to be reading the right book at the right time, my dear. You could send him back.”
We talked a little bit, then, about old friends and classmates of mine who’d gone on to do wonderful things, and we wished each other well, and then awkwardly, as if we hadn’t just discussed something outrageous and wild and pretty much unbelievable, we said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.
I put the book in the pile to go to Half Price Books, and I resolved never to read that author again. Harry could pop up in a later episode, and, if he’d managed to escape once, he might just be able to do it again.
That week I discovered a quiet corner of the patio where I could read undistracted, and I built an hour of reading time into most every day.
Mark and I never discussed Harry again. I think he was relieved when I stopped insisting the annoying little man with the war journal was really a denizen of a book. But I marveled in my musing times at the power authors wield, creating people and places and events so real and so true and so vibrant that, for some of us, they jump off the pages; they jump into the real world, and, God help us, they live.
And it dawned on me one night, as I turned the memory over in my mind, shook the dust away and tried to find a place to store it on a shelf in the Memory Room in that bony cavern—it occurred to me that Lori was right.
Harry really HAD been a character.