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Authors: Howard Owen

Harry & Ruth

BOOK: Harry & Ruth
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Harry & Ruth

Howard Owen

New York

To Max Gartenberg, whose guidance and tenacity kept
Harry & Ruth
afloat.

Grateful appreciation to Bob Bledsoe, Sue Durden, Max Gartenberg, Bev Orndorff, Jeff Schapiro and Phyllis Van Neste for their expertise in various aspects of human endeavor. Thanks to Martin and Judith Shepard for editing, guidance and friendship. And, as always, thanks to Karen, for everything.

ONE

Harry Stein sits on his front porch, the morning breeze tickling the crap that he's claiming for hair these days. He's waiting for Bob the Driver.

Bob the Driver used to be a pharmaceutical salesman. He and his wife retired to Safe Harbor almost 10 years ago; nine years ago, Bob realized he could not live without work.

Now, he drives people between the airport and the eastern end of Long Island's south fork. Harry's only problem with Bob the Driver is that he drives the way Harry imagines he used to work—full tilt.

Harry and Bob used to play tennis and drink together. Today, though, Harry is happy to be his passenger. The airport in Islip is not as close as it used to be.

Harry gets up and checks the front door again. He's had everything turned off. He's given away half a freezer of food to the Naughtons next door. He's told them, God help him, that their teenage son can drive the Camry once in a while “to keep the tires from going flat.”

Harry dozes for a few seconds in the warm sun, and Bob the Driver wakes him up with a series of short blasts from the station wagon's horn as he roars up the driveway.

“Hey, you old goat,” Bob yells. “I thought you were dead. That'd really piss me off, 'cause then you wouldn't pay me.” Bob's hard, playful laugh makes Harry smile.

Bob brings the wagon to such an abrupt halt in the sandy yard that dust rises higher than his head as he jumps out and stomps around to the porch. Before Harry can get to his feet, his old friend has grabbed the two largest suitcases. Harry tries to help, bringing the smallest one, but Bob orders him to “just stay there, dammit,” talking to him like a kid, really.

Harry does as he is told, though; he does that a lot lately. All that he is allowed to carry to Bob the Driver's car is his own diminished body.

These days, Harry accepts a lot of sympathy, even from guys like Bob the Driver, a guy he used to wear out on the tennis courts. But at least Bob remembers him when.

It's the other ones, when he ventures out from home, who he wishes, just once, could have seen Harry Stein in his prime—tall, slim but not skinny, jet-black hair, dark, smooth complexion, piercing brown eyes. These days, it hurts him to come across pictures from his youth. Wearing his floppy, old-man's cap, his pants bagging as if they were handed down by a larger, healthier man, he knows he never again will be either flashy or dependable.

“Ready to go?” Bob the Driver asks, starting the car and jerking away already.

Harry nods, frantically searching for the seatbelt.

“Hank!” Her voice from a second-floor window encourages a dog two houses away to start barking. “Do you have that little red suitcase I packed last night?”

Ruth is still giving everything one last look: lights, locks, thermostat, hair. Hank has already taken the car to the garage and had everything possible checked. Now, distracted from his search for the flashlight he's sure is back there, somewhere, under all the luggage, he emerges and looks up.

“It's in the trunk, Momma. It must be. Everything else we own is.”

She tells him she'll be there “in a minute.” Hank stands up straight, stretches and leans against the car. The sun is warm, and it is—give or take a barking dog—quiet.

Finally, understanding that this trip might never start if he lets his mother continue checking and rechecking the already-checked, he sighs and goes upstairs.

It's already 9 a.m., and Hank hopes to reach Sugar Beach by bedtime. He is (everyone in Saraw knows) a demon driver, capable of sitting behind a steering wheel for six hours at a time, taking a 15-minute break, then driving another six.

Hank would just as soon stay here. He loves fall in the low country. The days are as crisp and blue as the new shirt he bought for the trip; the nights are cool enough for sweaters.

Behind the house, past Ruth's pumpkin patch, the cornfields have been plowed under, awaiting spring, and six boys are playing a game of tag football in a wide backyard full of still-green grass. It's a Saturday, and Hank thinks he should be fishing, or maybe painting the old shed, a college football game or a stock car race on the radio. Florida will seem like stepping back into summer.

He climbs the stairs slowly, one step at a time. On the second floor, Ruth is going from room to room. She stops at a door, hands on her hips, stands still for a few seconds, then moves on. There are six bedrooms upstairs, and Hank overtakes her at the last one.

“It's gonna be dark soon,” he says.

“I know I'm forgetting something, but I can't think of what it is. I hoped it would jump out at me.”

Hank assures her that anything she's forgotten probably can be bought in Florida. Finally, she surrenders. She makes sure the stove is turned off, gives the faucet in the kitchen a final twist and at last walks out the front door, which she locks and deadbolts.

Hank says he'll drive first. He doesn't add that he will also drive last and always, if he has his way. His mother, for all her accomplishments, is not what he considers interstate rated.

It's the last day of September, and they'll be back by the 5th, the day after Ruth's birthday. “Assuming,” she says, “we can all get along for five days.”

On the way out of town, Hank drives by Mercy's so that Ruth can leave the house key. Mercy walks out to the car, telling them to “stay put,” then taking the key and wishing them a safe trip. She kisses Hank on the cheek, then walks around and gives Ruth a long hug through the window.

“Say hey to everybody,” she tells her cousin and oldest friend.

They share a smile, a secret one that seems to take in all those years, all those letters.

TWO

Once they get past the Hamptons and onto the expressway, Bob the Driver stops talking for as much as five minutes at a time. Harry looks out the window at the pines and sand, and for a moment he is back in Saraw.

Lately, Harry's mind has a mind of its own. It wanders whenever and wherever it wants, sometimes into areas Harry would as soon leave unexplored.

Even the good times Harry would as soon leave alone some days. He is taunted by their goodness.

Much of the time, where his mind takes him is into the realm of Ruth.

He saved her first letter, and then he saved the second one and the others that followed while he was still stationed at Camp Warren. Harry did not consider himself a pack rat, indeed thought of himself as an unsentimental man, a light traveler, but he never stopped saving.

In the first letter she ever wrote him, she called him “Dear Harry Stein.”

She was Saraw High School salutatorian (“but I should have been valedictorian”) the June before and had no plans beyond working for her grandfather and eventually going to a small Presbyterian girls school. “By then,” she wrote, “you all probably will have already given the Germans and Japs a good licking and come back home …”

Of course, it didn't start with letters.

That September afternoon, another would-be officer in his company, a boy from a steel town in western Pennsylvania with the lowest hairline Harry had ever seen, said he'd met this girl. Harry had driven his second-hand Ford down to Camp Warren and parked it off base, and Larry Olkewicz told him he would get him a date in exchange for a ride to and from Saraw “just down the road.”

Harry could read road maps. He knew Saraw was 20 sometimes-paved miles away, but he was homesick and bored, so he went along. He didn't know he was going to a Presbyterian social until Olkewicz directed him to park in the grass next to the wooden, low-steepled church. The humid air smelled like sawdust.

“Olkewicz,” he said, “are you aware that I'm not Presbyterian? That I'm not Protestant? Not even Christian? These people might lynch me.”

“Take it easy, Jewboy,” Olkewicz said, already getting out of the car and combing back his slick straight hair. “They don't care down here. As long as you ain't colored, we're OK. Shoot, they'll get all excited, probably think you want to convert.”

Harry sighed, turned off the ignition and followed Olkewicz in.

They walked into what was referred to as the fellowship hall, although there was little fellowship going on, as far as Harry could see. Homely country girls standing in little groups, giggling as if they'd never been in public before. Deacons and Sunday-school teachers doubling as chaperones. Grapefruit punch. And what appeared to be about half of Camp Warren.

Olkewicz, it developed, had not exactly lined up a date, for either of them. He'd heard an enlisted man say that this Presbyterian church on the other side of the county was having a social for the soldiers at Camp Warren. There were at least five other such patriotic events the same night in a 20-mile radius. Olkewicz just happened to have heard about this one.

Harry has not, for most of his existence, been very philosophical, not a man to look always in the rearview mirror, but he wonders often what his life would have been like without the clumsy subterfuge of Larry Olkewicz.

The hall smelled of varnished wood and mildewed hymnals. Harry had been in a few Protestant churches; one in Richmond passed him off as a gentile for the betterment of its basketball team. His father almost had a stroke when he learned that his only son was seen belting out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at Cokesbury Methodist.

“You couldn't at least have played for the Episcopalians?!” he yelled at Harry.

But country Presbyterians. Harry figured they could smell a Jew.

He did not feel mistreated, though. It helped that Olkewicz and a few other new soldiers who seemed not to have spent much time indoors were so obnoxious that Harry looked good in comparison by just standing still, not starting fights or picking his nose.

And Harry did look good. His hair was so black it was almost blue, and being outdoors in the hot dregs of Southern summer had enhanced his tan. He was lean as a rail. His eyes always seemed to be supporting a smile. In addition, he and Olkewicz were among the few men present who were in officers' training, and their uniforms were magnets. Even Olkewicz couldn't avoid latching on to a curly-haired blonde who needed braces and who spent the rest of the evening trying to either pronounce or spell his name while he spent the rest of the evening trying to get her to slip outside to Harry's car.

The social would end by 9. Before then, two separate pairs of girls approached Harry Stein nervously and tried to make small talk. He was polite enough; he had not ruled out the occasional date, even if he was engaged. It did seem to him, though, that it would take a girl at least half as attractive as his lovely Gloria Tannebaum to make him stray.

One of the matrons came over.

“And where are you-all from?” she said, sweetly.

He told her Richmond, which seemed to please her.

“And are you a Presbyterian?” she asked, her voice full of hope.

“No, ma'am; I'm a Methodist.”

She seemed to let herself believe this, and they talked for a while. It was after 8:30, and his only goal was to round up his passenger and return to camp.

He almost missed her.

She said later that she hadn't meant to come at all, that she and her cousin Mercy had gone to a dance at the beach and were headed home. Ruth saw that the social was still in progress and had Mercy let her out at the church, no more than 200 yards from her house.

Harry was walking out the front door, bound for his car.

But then, stopping in the shadows to light a Lucky Strike, he heard a car whine to a stop. Two girls were talking. He couldn't even hear what they were saying, but something about the inflection, the accent, the nuances of one of the voices struck a chord. It wasn't much, just enough to make him stop and wonder. Who knows why Harry didn't go on? Was he reminded of the future Richmond debutante who kept him aroused his junior year in high school? Did she sound like the girl who stole his heart in fifth grade? Was it something he heard from the womb? Fate? Luck?

BOOK: Harry & Ruth
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