What Harold Saw

Christie Hinrichs

We began paying attention to Della Stokes when gangrene ate away the tissue in her left eye and it rotted out. Until then, we ignored her in the attentive way demanded by tougher kids than us. She had moved to town the October of my ninth-grade year and transferred to Scravel High from a remedial school two shitty towns over. She was skinny and mean, with a long veil of hair the color of bacon grease and a fringe of uneven bangs that covered her forehead. When, after Travis Barlow squeezed out a packet of mayonnaise into one of the narrow slits of her locker for looking at him wrong in Personal Finance, and she stabbed her sharpened number two into his right cheek, we pretended not to notice. That she hadn’t anticipated or been deterred by Travis Barlow’s certain revenge was something we could only chalk up to Della’s ignorance of our ways. Or maybe, as I would suspect much later, she had expected it all along.

We were accustomed to kids leaving our town, not showing up in it, so Della’s presence drew immediate attention. She had been at Scravel High not even two months, and was already the subject of a thriving dialogue emblazoned upon the walls of the school bathrooms. But she was secretive and resisted our efforts to identify and catalogue her according to the conventions of small town teenage society. She was labeled a cocktease, a slut, and then a lesbian when she refused to pay the least attention to the FFA beefcakes or the jocks that whistled and swatted her ass in the crowded hallways. She was quick and ruthless when provoked, lashing out at teachers and students with equal ferocity. Her tirades, often laced with witty insults and flashy, sudden violence, were as frightening as they were entertaining. We had fourth-period history class together, and I once witnessed her flash her bare chest at Mr. Speth, who was also the varsity volleyball coach, when he had the audacity to call on her during a discussion about Wounded Knee. Like the rest of us, he pretended not to notice. Probably, I imagined, because he was worried about how he might fare were they to go head to head. We all were. As such, the whole school deferred to her, gave her wide berth in the cafeteria, tried not to make eye contact. And yet, I at least found her captivating, petulant, grabby, always looking for a fight. I caught myself staring into the mirror of the girl’s bathroom, parting my hair like Della’s, trying for that delicate balance of disgust and desire that showed up in her bottom lip.

We heard about Della’s eye from Robbie Heiss, who had overheard his mother, Scravel High’s school nurse, telling her book club about it. He eavesdropped regularly, creeping down the stairs when the ladies had settled into their metal folding chairs with paperbacks and wine coolers. They would discuss the selected novel for a few minutes, and then lapse into an hour of sex talk, courtyard gossip, and any number of things that could only be revealed in the company of alcohol and other women. Lolita had been selected for their November discussion, and Robbie hadn’t missed a single Saturday.

He was an elfish, wormy kid with a shock of curly auburn hair and a girlishly pretty face. The boys in our class mostly shunned him, mocking his chatty, soprano eagerness and laughing off his efforts to join their garage bands, flag football weekends, or creekside bonfires. The girls—besides Crystal, my sister Tibby, and I—tittered and petted him, treating him like a Labrador, and bruising his oversized ego. But somehow, Robbie remained unflinchingly overly confident and always cheerful, like a backwoods Peter Pan dressed in concert t-shirts bought at the State Fair two sizes too big. 

He came running with the Della news through the wide swath of grass and a piling of playground equipment onto which all of our sliding glass doors opened, to the vacant storage shed at the far end of the complex. We had knocked off the padlock with a nine iron and kept the shed stocked with cigarettes and loose tobacco nicked from our folks, punk rock magazines, and a battery operated boom box loaded with mix tapes. We would, occasionally, break into the neighboring sheds for bottles of warm coke (stored by Mrs. Woefle for her grandkids’ semi-annual visits), and miscellaneous amusements. If anyone knew about our illegal occupation or suspected minor thievery, they didn’t come knocking, and we trusted in the general disinterest of those living a multiple-unit daily life. 

The Green Mountain Estates had once been a luxury condominium development. It sat on the edge of a defunct golf course on the outskirts of our mountain town that, in the ‘80s, had experienced a brief and explosive economic boom when timber prices reached an all time high. Flush with the proceeds, loggers and community leaders bought half-ton pickups and built swimming pools.  Huge RVs showed up in cramped driveways towing four-wheelers and drift boats. That’s when an ambitious investor from California, guessing that the new wealth would find its way, eventually, to establishments of status, purchased land and built the golf course, enticing larger developers to raise the condominiums, tucked into the dense rainforest of the Cascade Mountains, sure to draw retirees, spendthrift locals, and outdoor sports enthusiasts.

It failed spectacularly. The stripping of the nearby hillsides, many of which were carved out to accommodate the kidney-shaped design of the course, eroded the soil and made it nearly impossible to keep green. Grass seed farmers kept leases on water rights in constant, expensive dispute, and the wily Calapooia River, docile for so many years before, flooded three seasons in a row, keeping the course closed for repairs more often than not. When the bottom dropped out of the timber market, state and local taxes were raised on all luxury properties, forcing out the greedy Californians, and leaving in their wake eighteen sun-bleached, empty holes bounded on one side by twenty-four half-finished townhouses.

These were eventually auctioned for a fraction of their worth and finished poorly, the elegant design thwarted by cheap materials and shoddy craftsmanship. Six two-story units to a side, they formed a perfect square with open corners, front doors pointed outward, sliding glass back doors opening onto a shared lawn.  Elderly couples, truck drivers, and seasonal workers moved in-and-out of what were now called apartments, leaving only a few occupied by permanent families—most of which were headed by single mothers, like ours. Robbie and his mom lived on the east side, nearest the course. Crystal’s family rented two units on the south side, one that she lived in with her parents and one for her four brothers next door. The entire west side, six apartments, stood empty, plagued by plumbing problems and the relentless traffic noise of the freeway it bordered. Tibby and I lived on the north side, four doors down from Della Stokes, her brother Harold, and a mother who worked some kind of night job and drove a twenty-year old Saab.

“At first, my mom thought it was just pink eye, which makes sense considering what a skeeze Della is,” Robbie said.

“Conjunctivitis,” Tibby said, and was shushed.

“But then her whole eye filled with blood and started to swell, and so mom starts poking around her face.”  Robbie jabbed his index fingers into his eye sockets.

“Get on with it, asshole.” Crystal, the largest member of our group, thumped Robbie on the top of his head with her beefy, brown fist. Robbie rubbed his head, glaring at Crystal but carefully deferential. Well over six feet, she had linebacker shoulders and a massive, couch cushion torso.  Her size offended the macho sensibilities of her father and average-sized brothers, and earned the shame of her pretty Mexican mama.

“Like I was saying. My mom starts poking around Della’s face and it’s all spongy and hot around her eye. She figures it’s some kid of bacterial infection.” Robbie paused, dramatically, and grinned, “When she poked her there, some kind of gas was released that smelled like rancid meat. That’s how she knew it was gangrene.”

Crystal and Tibby groaned, horrified but delighted, making Robbie smile wider and hop from one foot to the other, eager to continue. 

“Somebody took her to the clinic, but it was too late. They had to cut the whole eyeball out.” In silence, we imagined it—a black patch, the sagging, empty eyelid. I saw Crystal squeeze shut one eye and look around with the other. 

“It’s called enucleation,” Tibby said. “I wonder if she kept the eyeball.”  She was still in middle school, but we tolerated her because most of the Scravel High football team, and nearly every other male around, lusted after her tan legs and blooming bosom. Caroline’s younger sister?  they exclaimed, refusing to believe that such a mousy, flat-chested bore like me could share Tibby’s DNA. She wanted to be a gynecologist, read classic literature for pleasure, and could tie knots in a cherry stem with her tongue.  I was a solid C average student, could whistle through one nostril, and flip people off with my inordinately long middle toes.

“Don’t be gross,” I said, pretending to contemplate with the others the black rectangle of sliding glass across the shaggy weeds of our courtyard, and Della’s empty, oozing socket. But what I was really thinking about was a day two weeks before, when I saw her eyes, whole and terribly green and looking at me. Her thick hair had been pulled back into Travis Barlow’s white-knuckled fist. Her head and shoulders were dripping wet, and I guessed he had been plunging her into the handicap toilet. Her left eye had already begun to purple, and she glared at me with the other, daring me to intervene. Travis didn’t think to watch the side entrance of the girl’s locker room, where I came often during the day to skim cash and CDs from unlocked wire bins. Travis spit on the blue tiles of the shower room. A band-aid that covered an inky, crusted scab on his face had been half-dislodged, and flopped pitifully against his downy cheek.

Della’s eyes didn’t plead or explain, but said, keep your fucking mouth shut.

I did.

 

 

Della wasn’t at school the next week, or the week after, which was shortened for Thanksgiving.  Although we loitered around the storage shed every unoccupied moment, we never caught sight of Della or her brother. Their mother’s car kept disappearing every evening and returning by dawn, so we assumed they hadn’t left town. Tibby, who candy-striped at the community hospital once a week, could find no sign of Della in the patient files, but gave us daily updates of her likely condition, referencing the huge 1974 Physicians Desk Reference she’d picked up at the Salvation Army.

“They cut the four rectus muscles first, then the optic nerve. That leaves the eyeball free to lift out,” Tibby told us on Thanksgiving morning, before we all scattered to eat pressed turkey and potato buds for an hour in our cramped, identical kitchens. “The surgery only takes forty minutes and can be done under local anesthetic. She didn’t even have to stay overnight,” Tibby said, peering with wonder into the enormous textbook. Robbie gasped in mock astonishment, and she threw her empty coke bottle at his head.

“She would have worn a pressure patch for a week, making her temporarily blind.” Tibby looked at her digital wristwatch, checking the date. “Must have taken it off by now, and the swelling is probably down.” Crystal, Robbie, and I feigned disinterest, and took turns taking long draughts on a damp cigarillo we’d found inside a crumpled box lying in the parking lot. “She’ll basically have to learn how to see all over again—but with one set of eye muscles.”

I thought I saw the curtains at Della’s window part for a moment, revealing a shadowy, familiar interior. A boy-sized shape flitted across and out of view, as if Harold, Della’s little brother, had seen me staring. Once, when I had faked a fever to get out of running the mile in gym, I had seen Harold, sitting on the one functional swing in the middle of the courtyard.  He wasn’t much younger than Della, but small and hunched, dully blonde, with a pinched, squinty face aimed at the overcast sky. He didn’t pump his legs, or twist in the swing like other kids did. He just sat there, fists curled around the cold chains, lifting one foot, and then the other, off the ground. Tibby used the word “autistic” to describe him, which was, back then, a term we equated with short buses and social exile.

“She’s got the one good eye,” I said.

“It’s Della,” Crystal said.

“Yeah, I realize she’s not a very nice person, but that doesn’t mean she deserves to ...”

“No. It’s Della. On the green.”  We all turned to where Crystal was pointing, through the northwest corner of the complex, toward the golf course. We saw a strip of weathered turf and the flagless marker for the seventeenth hole swaying in the November chill.  Della was walking slowly toward a reedy, algae-clogged water hazard. There was a yellow bandana tied around her head, covering one eye and a heavily padded bandage beneath it. She wore a wrinkled nightgown, spotted with what looked like dried blood and food stains, and her bare legs and feet were chapped and ashy, smeared with mud and dead leaves. Her hair hung limply, crimped and tangled where her head must have lain on a pillow. Tibby was the first of us to start toward her.

By the time we reached them, Della’s arms were tangled around Tibby’s neck in a chokehold.  It took us a moment to realize that she wasn’t trying to kill Tibby, only hanging on as if she were at the brink of a precipice. They staggered on the rough fairway while Tibby spoke quickly into the injured girl’s uncovered ear.

“You’re okay. We’ll just take you on home now, I won’t let go,” Tibby stroked Della’s hair and kept her face pressed into her neck. “Crystal, give me your jacket.” 

Crystal shrugged off her long, quilted coat and handed it to Tibby, who draped it over Della’s shoulders one-handed. The three of us, Crystal, Robbie, and I, followed weakly behind while Tibby and Della shuffled toward the apartments. They reminded me of a cross-stitched picture my mother had framed and hung in the room Tibby and I shared.  It showed two little children crossing a wobbly wooden bridge during a storm. They are holding each other, heads bowed against the wind, and behind them, a beautiful woman in a shining gown is spreading out her arms, making sure they get home safe. 

“Motherfuckers,” Della said, her voice warbled by Tibby’s pink sweatered shoulder. Harold answered our knock on the sliding glass door and let the girls into the dark, cavernous living room. He seemed to be expecting us and looked concerned, but wouldn’t make eye contact, sliding the door closed behind him and letting the heavy drapes swing back into place.  The three of us remaining on the empty concrete porch stood looking at each other. 

“Should we wait for her?” Crystal said, gesturing toward the door where Tibby had disappeared. 

“What does she think she’s doing in there?”  Robbie said.  “She’s going to catch something.”

“Shut up, Robbie,” I said.

“I told my mom I’d be home.” Robbie turned and began jogging toward his building. Crystal looked balefully at me, and then toward the glass door. There was no telling what kind of condition her coat was in. She shrugged, and left. 

Della’s patio was completely bare, lacking the lawn chairs and potted plants that were scattered across the neighboring plots. I paced the concrete for a few minutes, and then sat down where the slab met the grass at a slight angle. The courtyard was empty. The lone swing pushed itself a few inches back and forth; the plastic lid of a paper cup wheeled along the railroad ties marking a small patch of bark dust, and blew end-over-end toward the base of a metal slide. I could hear the low roar of holiday traffic on the freeway, and blades of grass, springing against a soft misting of rain. The apartments and the people inside were still.

I thought about going home. My mother would be sitting at the kitchen table, a blue haze of cigarette smoke making the country music she listened to sound warm and syrupy. It would be me who would divide the canned turkey slices onto three mismatched plates. Me who would pour boiling water into the potato flakes and fluff them with a fork. Tibby would insist on cranberry sauce and produce a can from somewhere—jelled, not whole berry. I could smell Stove Top seeping from somebody’s open window, and then a dank, hollow odor that reminded me of shellfish and old tires.

I twisted around to see that Harold had opened his door and dropped down on the concrete step below it. He slid the door closed at his back, and then stared at his shoes.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” Harold said.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Your sister is changing my sister’s bandage.” Harold met my eyes briefly, and looked away.

“Where’s your mom?” I hadn’t seen her car parked in front of their apartment that morning.

“At her boyfriend’s,” Harold said. “Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“They’re almost done, I think.”

I looked back out toward the grass. I could hear Harold behind me, tapping the bottom of his shoes against the cement.

“I didn’t just let her go, you know,” he said. His voice sounded flat, but I could tell he was ready to defend himself.

“I didn’t say you did.” 

“She wants to get out of here, it’s all she talks about.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“It’s not like I didn’t try and stop her. I was watching by the door—she was fine.”

“She was wandering through the golf course in her nightgown,” I said.

“She wouldn’t let me go with her.”

“It’s really none of my business.”

“I’m just saying. I tried to make her put something on.”

“I’m sure you did,” I said.

“It’s not like I just stood by and let it happen.”

I didn’t say anything. Somewhere above us, a small, clawed animal skittered across the corrugated tin of the porch’s roof, and I imagined tiny, costumed pilgrims in buckled hats being hunted. 

“I saw it, you know.” Harold spoke quietly, and leaned slightly forward.

“Saw what?”

“Her eye. The hole. When the nurse came to take off the pressure patch.” 

I turned around to look at him. “She stuck a pencil into some guy’s face,” I said. 

“She told me.”

“What did it look like?”

He thought for a moment. “Like a rotten apple—a windfall that hits the ground too hard and gets bruised,” he said. “Smells like it too. But mostly it’s just a hole.” He sighed. “It’s weird. When you see a hole like that, you want to fill it. You know?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“The nurse said they’ll put in a fake eye. No one will be able to tell.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Like it never even happened.”

“I guess.”

 

 

Tibby didn’t talk about the time she’d spent with Della. After about an hour, she came out and we walked the short distance home in silence. I felt certain that Della had told her about that day in the locker room. And if she did know, that Tibby hadn’t been surprised. She took a long shower after dinner, and took her textbook to bed without saying goodnight.

Before following her upstairs, I stopped at our front door. I stood on tiptoes, and looked out through the peephole onto the clear-cut hills looming above the highway. In my right eye, the moon hung plump and heavy in the sky. In my left, it was higher and brighter. I saw Della’s mom turn into our driveway, and lurch toward her building. I squinted and watched her as she walked toward her door, but she looked tired and cruel in both eyes.

I had watched like this, through a hole Robbie knew about in the wall behind the gym’s bleachers. Through it, I saw that Della still knelt on the floor in front of Travis. He had released her hair and it hung in clumps around her face. Neither of them said a word. Della’s face, split open by a malicious grin, sent Travis pacing anxiously around her. A tiny, silent drama being played out through a quarter-sized opening in the wall. When it became clear that she wouldn’t give him what he wanted—whatever that might have been—Travis stomped out into the hall through a barrage of insults Della threw at his back. He called her a crazy bitch, and slammed the locker room door.

When he was gone, she didn’t move, but the smile disappeared. She let the left half of her face fall into her open palm, and rubbed her eye slowly, like a child rubs the satin edge of a favorite blanket. I wanted, suddenly and absurdly, to call out to her. To apologize and explain myself. I wasn’t brave enough to face her in person, but believed, somehow, that it might be possible to understand each other through the hole.   

“Della?” I whispered. My lips grazed the crumbling plaster around the hole. “Della?” I said again. The bell rang and echoed through the gym. She didn’t hear me.

She leaned against a shower stall, and I leaned, hidden, against the iron legs of the bleachers. We sat for a while like that, until the period ended and other girls, dressing and undressing, blocked Della from my view.

Author Portrait

Originally from rural Oregon, Christie Hinrichs has studied with the St. Andrews MLITT program in creative writing in Scotland, and she received her MFA degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2013. Her short stories have appeared in Prism, Pushing Out the Boat, and Northwind Magazine, where her story, “The Empty,” was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Her story, “Snag,” published in The Literarian, was selected as an honorable mention for the 2013 AWP Intro Award. She currently lives in Bend, Oregon.