Harry and Veronica by Joe Winter
“Let me help you,” Veronica said, gently taking hold of Harry’s wrists and lowering his hands into his lap. She reached up and unfastened the top button of his shirt. Harry could not bear it, this proximity. He thought he might explode. He leaned his head all the way back and focused his upside down gaze on the top shelf of the bookcase. Veronica worked her way down the front of his shirt. Harry shut his eyes tight against the sensations that erupted across his torso as her fingertips brushed against his skin. He breathed deep through his nose and took in the chemical scents of her hair, spiked with gel and dyed jet black.
She slipped the shirt off Harry’s shoulders and pulled it free. Harry sat back and felt the coolness of the chair’s padded surface. Her hands moved in and fumbled with his belt buckle. A fold of Harry’s belly hung over his waist and he tried to sit up straight. He grasped the sides of his chair.
“That’s alright,” Veronica said. “I can manage it.” She placed her hands on his shoulders and settled him back down in his chair. She pulled the end of his belt out of its loop. Then she took hold of the zipper and drew it down through the row of interlocking brass teeth. Harry’s left foot slipped out of the chair’s foot rest. He reached out, meaning to pull his leg back up, but instead he just let his arm drop and dangle free beside the wheel. Veronica wriggled his pants over his thighs and down to his ankles. She knelt down and took off his shoes and tossed them across the bed. She stood up and smiled. Harry did not smile back. He could not speak. If asked his name he would not have understood the question. Veronica crossed her arms across her body and grabbed the bottom of her green t-shirt. In one motion she peeled it up and over her head. Harry caught his breath at the sight of her rib cage, the flat plane of her stomach, the glinting silver ring that pierced the skin around her navel. Veronica reached behind her back with both hands and unhooked her bra. It fell away from her body and landed like some boneless dead thing at her feet. She laughed at Harry’s bewildered expression, so much like a child’s. Harry didn’t hear her laugh. He didn’t care if she laughed. He sat slumped in the chair wearing just his socks and his Fruit of the Loom underwear. Were it not for his scraggly beard, he almost could have passed for a 12-year old boy, the way his shoulders folded in on his chest, the way his mouth hung open. Harry was a 12-year old boy, and the welted scar that ran down the back of his neck from the base of his skull signified he always would be.
Veronica went behind Harry’s chair and wheeled him closer to the bed. “Can you do it yourself?” she asked. “Or do you need me to help you?” Harry rolled up his eyes. Veronica looked down at him through the valley of her breasts. Harry shook his head.
“I don’t know” was all he could say.
“Alright,” Veronica said. “Hold on.” She came back round to the front of the chair. She leaned into him, hooking her hands behind his back and underneath his arms. She braced her legs and lifted him clean out of his chair.
“You’re really strong,” Harry said. His head lolled on her shoulder and looking down he saw a tattoo of a two-headed snake winding sinuously up her backside. Each head clutched in its fangs one end of a banner that bore some inscription. Harry could not read the words. Holding him upright in her arms, Veronica pivoted and lowered Harry down on the mattress. He fell back into the folds of the comforter, his legs hanging over the side of the bed.
“I’m going to turn the lights off now, Harry,” Veronica said. “Try to relax. But listen, if you get scared or upset about anything -- anything at all -- tell me and I’ll stop. Do you understand?”
“Tell me you understand,” she insisted.
“I understand,” Harry said. His tongue felt dry and thick.
Veronica went over to the switch by the door. “Lights out,” she said, and the room went dark.
Lying there helpless in his underwear, in the dark, in the presence of this woman, this strange, powerful woman, Harry began to panic. A weight seemed to press down on his chest. He couldn’t breathe.
The woman’s voice called out from somewhere in room. “Ok over there?” Harry raised his head and stared wide-eyed into the empty dark space.
His lips quivered. Tears welled in his eyes.
Something touched him. He gasped. “Shhhh,” the voice whispered, so close now. “It’s alright, Harry.” He squeezed his eyes shut, squeezed tight until he saw cloud bursts and checkerboard patterns behind his eyelids. He bit his lip. He was not going to cry. He was not a baby. He was grown up, just like they said.
Fingertips slid across his belly, hooked around the waist band of his underwear, and pulled. Harry turned his head into the comforter. The weight on his chest lifted and he breathed deep. He was not going to cry.
Earlier that evening Stephen and his girlfriend Emily had picked Harry up from the group home where they both worked and took him to the house they rented in town for a dinner party. Stephen and Emily were on good terms with the director and the engagement had been approved ahead of time. Harry just had to be home by 11 o’clock.
Harry sat in the back seat of Stephen’s Volvo, his chair folded up and stowed in the rear compartment. Stephen told Harry about all the good food they had waiting for him at the house. There was going to be pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy, Harry’s favorite, and afterwards chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Stephen looked at Harry in rearview mirror, “How’s that sound, champ?”
“Sounds good,” Harry said, staring out the window. Before the accident, he used to ride in his parent’s car and look out the window at the scenery racing past. He’d imagine himself out there running alongside at superhuman speeds, hurdling bushes and buildings and whatever else stood in his way.
Emily turned to face him. “Harry,” she said. “A girlfriend of mine will be coming over for dinner tonight. I need you to mind your manners, alright? Remember what we’ve said about inappropriate behavior.”
Emily eyed him seriously and Harry saw Stephen watching him in the rearview mirror.
“I’ll behave,” Harry said.
Emily tapped him on his knee and winked. “Thanks Harry.” She turned around and rested her hand on Stephen’s thigh. Harry watched Emily’s hand resting on Stephen’s thigh and wondered what her girlfriend looked like. There must be a reason why Emily saw the need to caution him.
Veronica, Emily’s friend, arrived twenty minutes after they did. She was petite and athletically built. Her hair was black and spiked up in shiny little horns. Harry did not think she was good-looking. She did not have long hair, long legs, pouty lips or teardrop breasts. Veronica possessed none of these things. Harry knew about lesbians and thought she might be one. She definitely dressed like a boy in her baggy jeans and green t-shirt. Emily had mentioned at some point that Veronica was an artist. Harry assumed that meant she painted pictures. They were in the living room waiting for Stephen and Emily to finish making dinner when Harry asked her what kind of things she liked to paint. Harry was in his chair and she was in the recliner quietly sipping her drink. Beyond a brief hello when she had walked in, she hadn’t said a word.
“I paint people” she replied. “Nudes mostly.”
“You mean naked people?” Harry said and giggled.
Veronica smiled. “That’s right. Naked people. You think that’s funny?”
“Kinda,” Harry said.
Veronica nodded. “I guess you’re right. Sometimes it is funny.” She turned her head sidelong and gave him a mischievous look. “But what about you, Harry? Have you ever posed nude before?”
“Me? No way José!” He felt the heat rising on his face. Maybe Veronica was alright after all.
Veronica laughed and leaned over the side of her chair. “Why not, Harry? You could sit for me and I could paint you. Wouldn’t you like that? I would.”
Harry shied away from Veronica’s stare. “No way José!” A boyish grin spread across his face.
When dinner was served, Stephen wheeled Harry to a spot at the table next to Veronica. Stephen and Emily sat across from them. Emily piled Harry’s plate with pot roast, green beans, corn and an extra helping of mashed potatoes. Stephen opened a bottle of red wine and poured everyone a glass, including a small amount for Harry. Stephen purposed a toast, “To good friends …” and they all clinked their glasses. Harry did not like the wine and chased it with a gulp of coke. He poured a ladleful of gravy over his mashed potatoes and commenced eating. He was focused on cutting through a piece of pot roast when Veronica abruptly asked him how long he had been consigned to a wheelchair. Harry looked up at her from his plate. Veronica held a green bean in her hand. She bit it in half and waited for him to answer.
“About fifteen years,” Harry answered tentatively.
“What happened?” Veronica asked. “Did you have an accident or something?”
Harry looked at Stephen and Emily. Their faces held the same slightly pained expression. Stephen held a forkful of pot roast suspended half way to his mouth.
“I got hit by a car when I was 12.”
“So you’re a quadriplegic I take it.”
“Veronica,” Emily said awkwardly. “Come on.”
Veronica waved the half-eaten green bean. “What? Am I being impolite?”
“A little,” Emily said, and took a quick sip of wine.
Veronica tapped Harry on the wrist. “Sorry,” she said. “Sorry if I embarrassed you. Sometimes I speak out of turn.” She dropped the green bean on her plate and picked up her fork.
“It’s ok,” Harry said. He looked across the table at Stephen and Emily. “ I’m not embarrassed,” he said. “I’m not.” Then he turned to Veronica and said, “I got partial paralysis. I can’t walk, not really, but I can still feel things a little. And I can move my arms some.”
“I see,” Veronica said. “That’s interesting. So you can’t move your legs but you have sensation in them?”
“That’s right,” Harry said. “A little. More on my right side.”
“We’ve been taking Harry to physical therapy twice a week,” Stephen added, trying to be helpful. “He’s been taking swimming lessons. Getting pretty good at it, too, aren’t you Harry?”
“Uh-huh,” Harry said. He kept his eyes on Veronica.
“You have limited sensation,” Veronica mused, knitting her brow. “So, tell me, does that mean you can get an erection?”
“Veronica!” Emily exclaimed, glaring at her. She turned to Harry, “Harry, don’t answer that.”
Harry put his fork down. Red juice from the pot roast pooled in a corner of his plate. A bloom of heat rose up his chest and through his face. The side of his mouth twitched. He wanted to giggle, but he wasn’t sure what he felt.
“Sometimes,” he said, grinning into his lap.
“Harry,” Emily snapped. “Stop that. This is not appropriate. What did we tell you driving over here?” She turned to Stephen. “Will you say something, please?”
Stephen stammered. “Uhhh…I don’t know, Em. She asked a him question. He answered it.”
Emily scowled and looked back to Veronica. “You know, Harry’s been working on some behavioral issues. This is not an appropriate topic of conversation.”
“Behavioral issues?” Veronica said. “What sort of behavioral issues is she talking about, Harry?”
“Never mind,” Emily said. “Just knock off the sex talk, ok? You’re not helping.”
Veronica ignored her. “What sort of behavioral issues, Harry?” she asked again.
Harry said flatly, as if reading from a script, “Sometimes I behave in an inappropriately sexual manner toward women.”
“You do? Why is that you think? Have you ever been with a woman before?’
“Veronica, “ Emily said. “This is making me really uncomfortable.”
“Then be uncomfortable,” Veronica said. “I wasn’t talking to you. . . Have you Harry?”
Harry stirred the gravy in his mashed potatoes. “I guess not,” he said.
Veronica stared at him for a few seconds. Then she shook her head and reached across the table. She grabbed the wine bottle and filled her glass. “Behavioral issues…” she muttered, raising the glass to her mouth. “Jesus Christ.”
After dinner Stephen, Emily, and Veronica stepped outside to smoke. Harry was well into his chocolate cake and ice cream when it occurred to him he had been left sitting alone for more than ten minutes. He put down his fork and listened to them talking outside on the porch. He could not make out what they were saying but it sounded heated whatever it was. Someone, it sounded like Emily, shouted: “Don’t tell me that! Just don’t!” and then she stormed back inside the house. She marched right by him without saying a word. She went into the bathroom and slammed the door. Stephen came in next, followed by Veronica, who remained in the kitchen. Stephen pulled a chair up next to Harry.
“Hey, Harry,” he said. “How’s that chocolate cake?”
“Good,” Harry said. He glanced over Stephen’s shoulder. Veronica stood leaning against the refrigerator with her arms folded across her chest looking down at her shoes. Harry could not see her face.
“Here,” Stephen said. “”Let me take of that.” He picked up a napkin and wiped the chocolate frosting from the corners of Harry’s mouth. He placed both his hands on Harry’s arm.
“Harry,” he said in a slightly nervous voice. “I want to talk to you about something -- something really, really serious.” He waited. Harry stared at him.
“I had a talk with Veronica just now.” Stephen said, and cleared his throat. “Harry, Veronica wants me ask you . . . Veronica wants to know if you want to spend some time with her in my bedroom. Do you know what I mean, Harry? Do you want to be with her? Be with her the way a man is with a woman? In bed, I mean? Do you understand what I’m saying, Harry?”
Harry looked down at his half-eaten chocolate cake. He did not know what Stephen was talking about. The words made no sense.
“Harry, you’re 27-years old. We discussed this. We talked it over. You’re an adult. We believe you have the right to make these sort of decisions on your own. . . . But if what I’m saying makes you uncomfortable, Harry -- if what I’m saying scares you, just say so, and we’ll forget all about it. Ok, Harry?”
Harry shook his head. He could not understand anything he was hearing.
Stephen waited. Then he rubbed Harry’s shoulder and drummed his fingers on the table top. “Alright, Harry. Ok. No problem, champ.” He got up and went into the kitchen. Harry kept staring at his cake. He heard Stephen whisper something to Veronica.
Veronica came in next and sat down in the chair Stephen had just left. She did not rub his shoulder. “Harry,” she said. “Look at me.” She reached out and took Harry by the chin. She turned his face around so that he was looking her in the eye. She was not smiling. “This is something that can only happen tonight, Harry. This one time only. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can just sit and watch if you want. But here’s the thing, Harry.” She looked deeper into his eyes. “This is something that will never happen with me again. Never. You won’t get another chance after tonight. Understand?”
Harry understood. He nodded his head. Veronica smiled.
At 10:45 that evening, Terry arrived in the minivan to pick up Harry and bring him back to the group home. Stephen came out to meet him as he was walking up the front steps. They had a quick conversation on the porch. Stephen went back inside. A moment later he came back out pushing Harry in his chair. Terry took the bottom of the chair and Stephen grabbed the handles and together they carried Harry down the steps. Terry helped Harry out of his chair and into the back seat. Stephen meanwhile collapsed the chair and stowed it in the back. Terry and Stephen had another brief conversation while Harry waited in the minivan. Terry got in the driver’s side door and Stephen went over to Harry’s side and asked him how he was doing. Harry said he felt ok. “Ok,” Stephen said. “I’ll be in tomorrow. See you then.” He slid the door shut and banged on the roof of the minivan. Terry turned on the ignition and drove away.
When they got back to the group home, Terry wheeled Harry into his bedroom and helped him get changed into his pajamas. Terry noticed the little difference in Harry’s demeanor. He was unusually solicitous in a distracted sort of way. He kept reminding Terry about things that needed to be done around the house and the needs of the other residents. Twice he told Terry not to forget about the foot cream prescription for Bill, the resident who moved in last week with the skin condition. “I got it covered, Harry,” Terry said. “Don’t worry champ.”
Joe Winter lives in Orange County, CA with his wife and two daughters. He was work that has appeared or will be appearing in Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, Johnny America, Smokebox, and other places.