I wrote this short story in 1999, the spring semester of my freshman year at Ithaca College. I’ll be revealing a new part every week on Wednesday. The first installment starts today, even though it’s clearly not Wednesday.
A Taste of Wool
By Sarah Fader
Harry Ellis was a janitor. Of course everyone who worked around him at the Rutherford B. Bacon Elementary School knew him solely as Harry or “that weird guy with the mop.” Those who addressed him as Harry were usually beyond the stages of thumb sucking and nose picking, though this was not always the case. There was Mr. Urie, a fourth grade teacher, who was very familiar with the areas of nasal passage. Sometimes Harry would catch Urie (whom all the fourth graders referred to as “Urine”) in the act of familiarizing himself with his nostrils. Urie would abruptly remove his finger from the area in question and clear his throat.
“Well hello there Harry, you old rascal! How’s the day treatin’ ya?” Urie would remark.
Urie was a scruffy middle-aged man with glasses that always seemed to fall to the edge of his enormous nose. It seemed to the nine an ten year-old population of Rutherford B. Bacon that Urine wore the same red knit sweater vest every day.
Harry liked Urie very much. He didn’t mind Urie’s nasal fixation, and apparently Urie didn’t mind Harry, or as others called him, “that weird guy with the mop.”
It became sort of a routine Harry would walk up to Urie, catching him in the act. Harry would stare at Urie until Urie noticed that he was being stared at. Finally, Urie would spark up a conversation with one of his many ingenious conversation starters.
“How’s that floor looking, Harry? Can you see your pretty face in it?” This remark Harry identified as remark “p” for “pretty face.” It was often followed by a forced chuckle, but not always. On the occasions when the chuckle was included, Harry referred to it as “p-chuckle,” which eventually became “pachuckle.”
Sometimes, Urie would be so flustered in his activity that he couldn’t even manage to form a complete sentence or decipherable word for that matter. Urie would nod and say “Haaarriee.” This was between numerous throat clearings that were the product of intense embarrassment. Harry called this remark “cottage cheese.” He didn’t know why exactly, but he thought it conveyed the essence of what Urie was so desperately trying to communicate.
The third remark couldn’t really be considered a remark at all. What would happen was Harry would approach Urie in the midst of his nasal orgasm, Harry would stare at Urie for what seemed to both of them like an eternity. Finally, Harry would assume that Urie was not going to speak at all, and would start to leave. But Urie would realize that the staring had ceased and would begin whistling a a tune that both Harry and Urie were particularly fond of. Then the two would join each other in a duet.
It was always a surprise as to which of the three possible reactions Urie would choose. After Urie would react, Harry would find a way to say the name of the reaction that Urie had chosen. For example, during Urie’s chuckle after he said the pretty face remark, Harry would pretend to laugh along with him, but he was really repeating “pachuckle, pachuckle, pachuckle,” over and over again. Urie never seemed to notice.
What Urie did notice was that every time he was particularly flustered and could not utter a decipherable phrase, Harry would pat him on the back and say with the wink of an eye, “cottage cheese.” Though, Urie had no idea what “cottage cheese” was in reference to, the sound of Harry’s voice saying it was always so comforting, so he took it to mean “it’s okay.”
Urie and Harry had a unique relationship. Very few people understood Urie, and fewer people understood Harry. Let it be known that other than these three possible exchanges, Urie and Harry never spoke at all. It was only through these minute interactions that these two men had any contact at all.
***To be continued