Short Story Excerpt: Harper

Rachel Lew, BFR Staff

The trees are wet. Joey can see this through the small window of his room. For hours he has been roving, mentally, across the moist pavement and stilled cars outside. The sun is rising now, dragging itself out of its bed of clouds; soon its malignant rays will be creeping up his wrinkled sheets. Picture this: innocent Joey, helpless, the light exposing his soft shoulders, curved in meek avoidance of the other inert singularity under his blankets.

A decidedly female singularity.

He has not turned to Harper for hours, and does not do so now. Instead, lying on his side with his knees drawn to his chest like a dead beetle, he has been tracing mournfully in his head an image of her slim self. Reflexively, the voice of his art teacher guides him:

Let us start at the feet.

One curved white sole forms on his imaginary canvas, crinkled and tucked under a smooth calf.

Begin by fleshing out the light and the dark.

There is something both intimate and disgusting about bare feet. On one hand they remind Joey of public bathrooms at the pool, of slippery film accumulating on tiles; on the other, they are beautiful things in the realm of art, and make Joey think of old ivory statues, of new bars of soap, of a bowl of rich milk sitting on a table.

The toes of the other foot: creamy white dots, poking out tentatively from under pale haunches. Very good, says Mr. Meyer.

If only he could conceive this on a real drawing pad!

But Joey cannot wield even a charcoal stick with grace, let alone a paintbrush. After weeks of steady instruction, the marks on his paper are insistently large, dark, and awkward; no amount of lessons on perspective or shadow seem to have reformed his hand. Even Mr. Meyer, equipped with the blind faith of a young teacher, has become less generous in doling out encouragement to Joey.

Perhaps he has become disappointed in Joey. Indeed, even the most exuberant of instructors require the occasional verification from their student: a successful imitation, an independent epiphany—at the very least, verbal acknowledgement of the mentoring effort. But reciprocation has always eluded Joey.

The rest of his teachers have learned to ignore him. Joey is perfectly fine with this. In any case he is not the sort to raise his hand in class; the exchanges between question and answer happen too quickly to allow for the pauses between his utterances.

Despite what his teachers think, Joey is not deaf. In their voices he can discern not only the meaning of the words they speak so readily, but also certain sympathetic undertones and the leaden march of speech reserved for the uncommonly stupid. Yet, slow he may be, but not stupid—he only needs time to practice the purse of his lip, the lift of his tongue; each word must ripen before it is borne into the air. This his teachers do not understand. They catch him mouthing syllables and rush to his rescue with careful enunciations, hoping to wipe up the sentence before it dribbles down his chin. Unfortunately it is a dynamic that goes not unobserved by his classmates.

“Joey. Joey-Joey-Joey.”

“Coo-ee!”

“Fatty-says-what?

they whisper, trying to get him to utter the hallmark of the hearing-impaired.

Joey has tried to gratify them in the past. Each time, it has ended poorly; each time, he has imagined that if he is to give them one word, it will be the most articulate, scathing monosyllable that anyone has ever pronounced; whipping his head around, he will deliver it like a blow, and they, unfortunate animals, will be shocked into their own silence. Naturally, when he does turn around in his seat, he is so furious that the word comes out in funny puffs: “Wh-wh—wh—”; his classmates, capitalizing on his likeness to a heavy freight train, only burst into further mockery.

“Look at him!”

“Look at how red he is!”

From fleshy canals in his head the heat spreads; his hands creep up and cover his ears, lest they begin to spout fire. What a self-conscious dragon he is, more agitated by the sound of their laughter than the cause of it. Ugly laughter! he thinks. Unseemly, large-mouthed, like the monstrous approximations of people that blossom on his sketching-pad. And yet he makes little effort to prevent future episodes like these. Such unattractive details of his life he is only too willing to hide from others; for the sake of their own ears he stuffs them deep in cerebral folds, camouflaging them, with a sort of sick delight, amongst the couch-debris of his brain (dimes, hair-clips, crumbs, oh my!).

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