SHORT STORY
Soup & Nail Polish
Jennifer Todhunter

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Harry had a record collection you could flip through for days. He kept the vinyl in a row of green milk crates tucked beside our futon on the floor. The player was something he’d inherited from his grandfather, who died a few months before Harry’s mother. It dated back to the sixties, like some of his records, with a built-in eight-track and yellow inserts for the forty-fives.

Harry and I were best friends with benefits. We liked to get stoned, lie on the floor of our studio apartment, and listen to the revolutions while debating guitarists, existentialism, and pizza topping combos. I'd never seen him dressed in anything other than a suit vest pulled over a plain black t-shirt and worn-out jeans. He preferred horizontal stripes to vertical, postcards to emails, and music to just about anything else. We were both in a fucked up circle of needing to forget things that had inverted our lives, like death and disappointment, pushing everyone else away until we only had each other.  

"I wish I could remember her, Farrell," he said about his mother one afternoon as we lay toe-to-toe. "It’s like she fades a bit more every day."

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt because I knew nothing of dying or dealing with death.

"I can’t hear her laugh anymore. Just what she sounded like when she yelled at me."

We both held dead-end jobs in our progressive city—Harry crafted sandwiches at a deli downtown, and I hawked artisan crafts at a kiosk near the ferry terminal, because my parents said I’d never amount to anything, anyway. On days when we both worked into the evening, we’d walk home across the bridge together. Harry would lay down a track, rapping out the rhythm on the iron rails that spanned the length of the crossing. His wavy hair shuddered in the breeze, and we’d laugh when the rain pelted at our skin so hard it felt like knives.

"There’s a graveyard down there," he said, peering over the edge of the bridge at the frothing river below. "Markers for all those who’ve jumped."

"Shut up," I said, because he liked to mess with me when it came to things I knew nothing about.

Harry looked at me, his eyes darker than the night. "For real. I used to dive down deep with Gramps. There are dozens of graves. You just can’t see them from up here."

"Do they have names on them?"

"Nope, just a few words."

"Like what?" I asked.

"I dunno. Random shit," he said, before starting up with a tune.

After a while, Harry started calling in sick to work, too tired to get out of bed. I’d walk across the bridge alone, examining the water for a hint at what lurked beneath its surface. Sometimes, a heron swooped down from graying clouds and pulled out a rainbow trout. Other times, the river was a blanket of calm, only a quiet ripple dotting its facade.

I’d bring home random scraps of the city for Harry—rare finds from used book stores, shades of nail polish we both could wear, ballpoint pens liberated from businesses—and make him pizza and soup because he wasn’t interested in eating anything else. He didn’t want to talk about what was going on, and the more I pressed, the more withdrawn he became.

"I picked up mulligatawny and a copy of Brave New World," I said, arriving home from an overtime shift in the summer.

He eyed the brown paper bag clutched in my hands.

"I’m not hungry," he said.

"You have to eat."

He shrugged. "My grandma called today. Said she has another box of records for me."

"That’s great," I said. "Let’s share this soup. You’re so thin."

He shrugged again, sparked a joint, and pulled out a Smiths album.

We sat crosslegged, knee-to-knee, while I ate the soup, the spices bringing a flush to my face. Harry talked about his childhood, and the suit vests with patterned backs his mother used to make him, like it was the one thing left he remembered about her. I reminded him he was the only person who talked to me after I came out, the only person I cared to be around anymore. Then we steeped in our misery while listening to Morrissey sing.

That night, Harry read the opening pages of Brave New World out loud, while we lay next to each other on our futon. He cried when he thought I was sleeping, and I did my best to keep the sound of my breathing steady so he couldn't tell I was listening. When I heard his breath flatten to a constant, I leaned in and inhaled his scent of smoke and sweat, wanting to reach over and shake out his troubles. He shifted and collapsed his arm around my shoulders, dragging me into his heat. I burrowed into his chest and forgot about everything else.

Harry’s days of unemployment started to add up, and soon we couldn’t afford our rent. He dug through the recycling bins out back for empties and sold some of his less-treasured records.

"You don’t have to do that," I said, as he flipped through the crates.

"I don’t have anything else to contribute."

"You could ask for your job back at the deli."

"I don’t want to work at the deli," he said, pulling out a Who record. "I don’t want to do anything."

I was early coming home one afternoon, crossing the bridge with fixings for margherita pizza, a copy of The Last of the Mohicans, and a bottle of midnight blue nail polish I’d borrowed from a co-worker. It was a stormy Wednesday, the rain screaming down and the wind whipping through the open space. The road was clogged with cars and college kids nowhere near class. Some of them craned over the edge, looking into the river as it frothed and churned below.

"What’s going on?" I asked.

A girl with blue-streaked hair said, "Someone went over the side."

I reached out and gripped the railing. "What did they look like?"

"Dunno. I just stopped to see what was going on."

I wanted to call Harry from the payphone at the other end of the bridge, but our line had been disconnected earlier that week. Everything I carried fell from my arms as I ran through the streets, and lunged up the hill toward our apartment. I crashed through the front door, and raced into living room, but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere.

Collapsing on our futon, I clutched his pillow and shook. There wasn’t anybody to phone, or anybody to tell, but as long as I could smell him, he wasn’t gone. I put on a random record in an effort to fill the space and avoid thinking about the underwater graveyard, with its stones and its sayings—I didn’t want to know what Harry’s marker would say. I was halfway through listening to a crate of records, when the floor squeaked in front of me.

"Hey," Harry said, his face wet like mine. "What’s wrong?"

He was wearing a new suit vest, one with tiny turtles embroidered on its front, wading along horizontal stripes. In his hands was a cardboard box.

"Where have you been?" I asked, jumping to my feet. "I thought you were . . . someone jumped off the bridge today."

His face screwed up in apology as he crouched down beside me.

"I went by my grandma’s and picked up the records. She gave me a photograph album, too." His eyes shone in a way I’d never seen them light before. "It’s full of pictures of my mother."

He placed the box on the floor and extracted a mustard-coloured album. Sitting down beside me, he turned the first page.

"Is that her there?" I asked, pointing at a close-up.

Harry nodded.

"She has a beautiful smile. Just like yours."

"I remember her laugh now," Harry said, tracing the black triangular corners with a finger. "I can hear it when I close my eyes."


Jennifer Todhunter is a number nerd by day, word fiddler at night. She enjoys dark, salty chocolate and running top speed in the other direction. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_. 

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