Listening to the Harry Rothbaums
    Ann Ice
Sam takes a bite of his sandwich and doesn't bother to wipe away the remains of mayonnaise. He sits cross-legged, erect. Specks of white goo dot his upper lip. His thin, pockmarked face has that strangely intense expression that says he's hiding somewhere inside himself. I wonder if he simply doesn't feel that place around his mouth because he is so lost in thought the physical world evades him.

Sam is my latest Harry Rothbaum. My life has always had Harry Rothbaums; all stuck in different chapters, like bookmarks. Harry was the disconnected boy in my tenth grade class. He was not there, separated from the entire world. Harry was small, unattractive and bizarre. He sat by himself at lunch, leered at everyone during study hours and sometimes did weird things like lay down on his back in the quad, his eyes open, studying the sky. Harry knew all about clouds--how they were formed, what stratosphere they floated in, what kind of storm their shape indicated. Of course, he was the center of all the normal adolescent teasing. I didn't really reach out to Harry, but I never backed out of his way, never shifted my eyes or pretended he was part of the chair. Since I was the only one who couldn't ignore him, his attachment to me was intense. Teasing in junior high flowed like a magnetic stream, and as it swirled about Harry, its kinetic force swept me into its current. I was teased mercilessly for being, Harry Rothbaum's "girlfriend". But to this day, I can still talk intelligently about cloud formations.

Harry returned throughout adulthood in the form of John Calliston, the lonely clerk in my former job in Illinois. John was an expert on Russian history. He told me he had over two hundred Russian books. John came by my office, asked me to lunch, called endlessly for years.

Harry came again as Sean Weatherman, my Aunt's next door neighbor, who owned at least twenty different variety of birds. He called, stopped by, wrote me notes for about a year. I still hear from Sean occasionally.

And now he is here again. I met Sam at an art auction in Soho. Again, my look said "talk to me", and he did. He's a computer analyst, but he likes to write poetry, lots of it. "Betsy, I would very much enjoy your opinion of a few of my pieces." "That would be nice. I'm sure they're wonderful," I said.

I have to admit sometimes he says the most charming things. Once he told me that I was a good listener. "But, Betsy, you need to concentrate on this asset. 'The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.' " He loves quotes. I think that was Thoreau.

Today Sam asks me to lunch in Central Park so that I can listen to yet another poem reading, this time about ivy. "Well, Betsy, that's its title. I'll let you decide what it's about." The last poem reading described Belvedere pond. It was strange. Sam needs an audience, and I am that audience. Or perhaps I am that person who will help him with his self-analysis. I don't mind, at least until I find someone in this city. God, it's hard to find a man.

Sam coughs a bit. "So, Betsy, would you like to hear my poem?"

"Oh yes. Please read," I say and wait for the dribble.

He pulls out a wad of paper, slowly unfolds it, then reads. The poem is unmelodious babble, all the words rambling like ivy as they describe ivy. Then, he looks at me when he says, "It is not elegant like the morning glory." He puts the paper down and recites the last stanza from memory.

Only a sprinkle of yellow
adorns the green leaf,
Like a spill from the sun That tips over as the vine
Makes its ephemeral pass,
Looking for something else to touch
But getting touched
Just the same
On its way

Sam folds the paper then hands it to me. "You can have this one, Betsy."

I look down at the paper. Above the city noises, I hear only the birds singing; a few dogs barking; a couple laughing behind us, the volume rising and falling intermittently as they stroll down the path.

Ann Ice is a full time mother and part time writer. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two boys. She is currently at work on her first novel. This short short is about two characters taken from the novel.


In Posse: Potentially, might be ...