Harry puts the roast in the pre-warmed oven following Louise’s specific instructions, and then he forgets all about it. When she arrives she is frantic, but Harry hasn’t noticed smell or smoke. He is in his study reading Margaret Fuller’s, 19th Century JOURNALS, his eyes smarting. He is sorry, terribly sorry, so sorry she almost weeps at his humility.
“I just forgot,” he says over and over. “ I was preparing for tomorrow’s lecture and I just forgot.”
“It’s only a roast, Harry. Not filet mignon,” Louise tries to comfort him. She is a large, capable woman, younger and of buoyant mind. Quickly, she throws open doors and windows. “We can have pasta for dinner. It could happen to anyone.”
Louise cannot say when she first began to notice Harry’s slips. He has always been absent-minded and disorderly in the handling of every-day chores. That is part of his charm. He is her second husband. Alfred, her first, was an accountant, meticulous and mean. He kept track of things like where the Colgate tube was squeezed. He never spent paper money without getting a receipt. And each time, he said the same thing, “For tax purposes of course. Ha hah.” Louise, discovering that she could not love such a spiritual dwarf, divorced him.
Harry lives at a far remove from all quotidian preoccupations. He never remembers to get receipts. He was that way at thirty-five when Louise came upon him reading THE MARBLE FAUN in a coffee house: a tall, ascetically thin man, already white-haired, with periwinkle blue eyes, and that is the way he is now, at sixty-three. From the beginning, Louise managed things, which is what she likes to do. She loved Harry dearly as he was; he had an intrinsic sweetness to him as though scholarship had protected him from the pettiness that alters so many American male academics.
One day soon after the incident of the roast, Harry goes off to work wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe. He doesn’t notice until Max, the linguist down the hall, stops him.
“Hey, Harry. Is that the latest style?”
Harry looks down.
“Maybe you should put the light on when you get dressed.”
“How could I do such a thing?”
“It could happen to anyone. I put my undershirt on inside out and backwards all the time.”
Harry understands that Max is being kind. “Undershirts are another story, Max.” Harry grips his colleague’s shoulder to say thanks. Inwardly he is telling himself: one, it’s a small mistake; the other, it’s a tragedy. All day Harry walks around in his mismatched shoes. He stands in front of his lecture class in American Literature, and he conducts his Melville seminar wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe.
Another man might have run out and bought a new pair of shoes. To him, that would have been kin to a lie. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he begins each class, “you have surely heard about absent-minded professors. You see one before you. My mind was somewhere else when I dressed this morning. I cannot say where.” There is a ripple of laughter and some scattered applause. Harry’s students like him. He offers American literature to them as a rare treasure. Many are reading Poe and Whitman for the first time.
It could happen to anyone, he keeps saying to himself and he sits on the commuter bus heading home, mismatched shoes concealed under the seat. It COULD happen to anyone, but it’s happening to me! Sorrow rocks him. I must try to focus on what I’m doing, he resolves. I must pay attention and not allow my thoughts to wander. He stares through opaque dirty bus windows.
Louise, on her own, goes to the family doctor. He is sympathetic, but has no suggestions. “ Lecithin?” She asks him. “Can’t hurt,” he tells her agreeably. Is he only humoring her? No matter. She hurries to the drug store and buys two giant bottles. Health nuts, she knows, swear by Lecithin. Harry is touched. “You are too good to me,” he says sadly.
One morning he carries the wrong books and notes to class. He weeps afterwards. Louise, desperate, would go to a witch doctor, to a psychic; SHE WOULD DO ANYTHING, but there is nothing to be done. It sits between them; they cannot talk about it. Louise covertly looks Harry over very carefully before he sets out daily. Sometimes she corrects his error and he minds. He almost never remembers his Swiss cheese sandwiches for lunch. One day he forgets to zip his fly!
He wants to talk to her about the terrible thing that is happening, but he can’t. He begins. Stops! He notes Louise’s suffering. She is constantly checking: the gas jets, the faucets. He is suddenly afraid to make allusions in class. Sometimes familiar material floats temptingly into his mind, but he fears using it.
Late one night, after a good day when he has forgotten nothing, in the soft darkness of their bed, he forces himself to speak. His arms are about her, her warm, comforting body cushioning him. He caresses her hair. “Louise, when the time comes, you must do with me whatever has to be done. I know how kind you are,” he whispers. “
She puts her palm over his mouth. “Sh. You do not have to say anything.”
“I give myself completely into your hands.” He buries his face in her bosom. “Remember always, I forgive you and will love you still.”
Weeping, Louise draws him closer.