Henry Spark by Jason Rice
While he waited in line at Starbucks, Henry noticed a girl standing alone at the counter also waiting for her coffee. She was youngish, thin, tight body in a stiff pair of jeans with cuffs folded up around her ankles. She had a larger than usual nose, too big for her face, nice bobbed blonde hair, and dark black eyes. She took one look at Henry, then another a little slower. He pocketed his phone making sure his wedding ring finger wasn’t showing so she wouldn’t be able to tell that there was a mark on his skin where the ring used to be. He hadn’t worn the ring in four months, it was sitting in a box on his desk at home along with a love letter he wrote his wife Ann, but never sent. In the letter Henry hoped to reset the relationship and start from scratch, but hope is not a strategy.
He watched the girl as she chewed on a straw while she waited for her drink. He tried to figure out how old she was, and what confluence of events would have to occur for him to ask for her phone number. The girl walked past him and Henry tried to look up at the ceiling, but he couldn’t stop looking at her.
At the regional book wholesaler where he worked, Henry sold books over the phone. He talked to most of his customers and took orders faster than usual. He entered orders for a chain of airport stores that netted him thirty thousand dollars in sales for the day. The previous Friday for the first time in five years he tallied up his daily sales for the year. His boss gave him the code to access that part of the computer system, and Henry learned that in 2009 he grossed the company $1.9 million dollars just from calling the independent bookstores in the area and taking their orders and selling them books that were hot and in demand. Henry never saw any bonus from his efforts, just a paycheck that never changed. As he was leaving for the day Henry’s boss, a short man named Charlie told Henry that he was giving Rodney, a gay man who worked in the office a ride to the train station. In a low-pitched voice that made it sound like Charlie was sharing a private joke with Henry, Charlie said, “I’m going to let Rodney suck my dick, in return for the ride.” Charlie laughed and Henry didn’t even offer a supporting chuckle. The office was split in two, one side for salesmen and the other for the buyers who purchased the books. Attached to the office was a huge warehouse where books were packaged and shipped, like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they put the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the movie. Rodney was a buyer and never got his drivers license, and he didn’t know that Charlie was making fun of him. Henry didn’t think Charlie was funny, but knew he should fake it.
After dinner Henry put his son Ray to bed and read him a story, and Ray quickly went to sleep. Ann left to go somewhere. He didn’t know where, and he didn’t ask. She might tell him if he did. Four months ago they talked about taking a break from their marriage and one month after that they talked about getting separated, then divorced. They never touched each other anymore, or talked about how to work their problems out, make a go of their marriage instead of giving up. Henry talked about work sometimes; she rarely talked about her job, and barely responded to his stories about his boss Charlie. Henry had written on his Facebook page that he needed a hug a week earlier, and the next morning unsolicited, she gave him one. He fought back tears the entire trip to work.
The night they talked about taking a break Ann sat on the couch staring at the television set, she put it on mute and looked at Henry and asked, “Aren’t you tired of this?”
“Of what?” Henry said.
“It’s been ten years and things between us aren’t getting better,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Am I not being clear?” she said.
Henry felt stupid for asking.
“We’re broke. In debt. And you hate being here,” she said.
“Who said that?”
“I just did,” she said.
That’s when they decided to be roommates. Sex was off the table, Henry knew that but he spent almost every night wondering if she would change her mind.
Ray woke up crying and when Henry got to his room and picked him up he held him close, “You’re my boy, it’s okay, you’re okay, I’m here,” Henry whispered into Ray’s ear and then thought, there were many children all over the world and none of them even came close to his greatness. Henry thought that it would make him really happy to be a single parent and raise Ray on his own.
After Ray went back to sleep Henry stretched out in the king size bed that once had two people sleeping in it, and clicked the remote control in the hopes of finding a movie on TV, like The Shining or Three Days of the Condor, even The Parallax View. Eventually he gave up looking and went to sleep by making a cave of pillows over his head, sealing himself off from the dim glow of light from the streetlight outside. Later that night he thought he heard Ann’s heels on the walkway to the house. Maybe he did or it was just a dream.
Henry dreamt about Mad Men, and he had become a writer for the show and sat around and watched his words come out of the actor’s mouths. The one Tylenol PM he had taken before bed made his dreams more intense, but he couldn’t tell if it was the drugs talking or something trapped in his brain. Ray came into his room that night to sleep in bed with him.
“Daddy. I had a bad dream.”
Ray wiggled under the covers next to Henry.
Henry whispered in Ray’s ear, “There is nothing to be afraid of,” His mind joggled back to waking from a deep sleep.
“But it’s dark,” Ray’s voice barely a whisper.
Focusing on the right words to stop Ray from worrying, “There is nothing in the dark that isn’t here in the light,” Henry tried to match Ray’s quiet voice.
Before Ray woke him, Henry had already fallen asleep and successfully avoided worrying about his mother-in-law, who he was going to see the next morning for the first time since Ann told her mother that she was getting separated from Henry. The trouble with that story was, they weren’t separated, only roommates, but why pick pepper out of cotton? But now in bed with Ray, Henry felt the anxiety of what was going to happen next leap back into his mind. Ray’s breathing slowed and he was soon asleep. Henry matched his breathing to Ray’s and fell back under the wave of sleep after only few minutes.
The next morning when Henry dropped Ray off his mother-in-law seemed more normal than usual which felt like a dead giveaway. The Tylenol PM wore off halfway through his drive to work, and he did not feel as tired as he did when he took a double dose. Ray waking him up mid-sleep had fooled the drugs into thinking it was morning, but in the end it felt good to have his son sleep next to him. Making his little boy feel safe created a wave of warmth in Henry’s chest, two small tears suddenly rolled down his face and he wiped them away even though no one could see them.
That morning at Starbucks he saw on his phone that The New York Times had reviewed three books which he could sell when he got to work: one on card counting and another on race relations, plus a memoir. The girl from the previous day was again in line in front of him but left in a hurry, and he stared at her as she walked to her car. She wore the same pants as the previous day. From the new angle he noticed she wasn’t a natural blonde, and that was all right because he preferred brunettes.
The three titles he had seen reviewed in The New York Times made his job easier than falling out of a boat. The praise on them was unanimous and by calling over fifty bookstores he almost sold out of the company’s inventory and netted ten thousand dollars in sales. Henry relished the slow moments of his workday, waited for a gap between calls so he could look at a short story he was working on. He was revising it in the hopes of getting it published. So far the universe had spoken, they didn’t want this story, but he hadn’t submitted everywhere yet so he kept polishing. He knew the way to Carnegie Hall; practice, practice, practice.
On the drive home Phil called, he was the outside sales representative for the company. Phil visited stores most days and sold the services of the company to independent bookstores.
Phil shouted into his phone, “Macher!” he loved to use Yiddish on Henry and the nickname stuck. Upon hearing it the first time Henry asked what it meant, Phil answered quickly, “A big Macher in Hollywood, everyone wants to meet him – a guy who is a big deal. That’s you!” Phil was Henry’s number one fan.
Henry knew the meaning of the call and said to Phil, “It’s nineteen-seventy five in that office,”
“Then you can tell the Mexican girls in the warehouse they can make more money on their knees,” Phil replied.
Henry sighed and said, “Jesus wept.”
Phil asked, “Did Charlie say anything about me today?” he sounded like a fifth grader.
Henry offered, “You have sex with dogs?”
“Fuck you!” Phil shouted.
“It’s not the fucking you give but the fucking you get,” Henry said.
“It’s a hateful place,” Phil’s voice had softened.
“To work there you need to hate yourself more than the owners hate you,” Henry admitted.
“Preach it!” Phil shouted again.
Looking at the traffic in front of him, “Don’t worry about Charlie, he’s full of shit, I gotta go,” Henry said, and hung up without saying goodbye to Phil.
It rained again on his drive home and it seemed like most of the month it had been raining. In the backyard, Henry noticed a fifty-gallon garbage can that he’d left out without a lid. It was now full of water. He was impressed at how calm the liquid looked. The deep blue color of the container made the contents look like oil. He waved his hand along the surface of the water and watched the little ripples cruise from one side to the other. He placed both of his hands on the edge of the can and dunked his head in. For a moment things went black and he felt painfully cold. He pulled up and felt a rush of energy. Ann came to the sliding door and yanked it open.
“What are you doing?” her voice sharp.
He smiled and said, “Nothing,” and wiped water off his face.
“After he goes to bed I’m going out tonight. Dinner is on the stove,” this was her nightly statement. She quickly closed the sliding door. The outside air on Henry’s face felt good and the water in the trashcan regained it’s calm.
Before bedtime Henry and Ray wrestled on the bed. Ann walked in to show Ray a new kind of underpants for overnights. Henry stared at her body as it lay across from him; it was hard not to imagine making love to her. She looked like she was dressing to go out, loose blouses and plunging necklines. Henry wondered if it was a sign that he should pick up on. Was it for him? Was she showing him something? Their hands touched briefly and Henry felt some kind of electricity, probably imagined, and was sure she felt nothing.
“You look nice,” he said to her.
“Yeah. Thanks,” she kissed Ray on the cheek, “Good night honey,” and she walked out of Henry’s room.
Once alone Ray asked, “Where does Mommy go each night?”
“I don’t know Ray,” Henry said, “But it’s time for bed.”
Later, Henry sat down in front of the television and ate the pizza Ann had made him. He turned the television on and started watching that week’s episode of Lost. During commercials he muted the television and stared out into the darkness of his backyard. There were lights on in the house directly behind his own and he saw a figure also watching a television set, and he wondered were they also watching Lost?