When Harry met Irene he was living in a state of blissful bachelor squalor. Irene as much as told him so. She was a woman of simple, straightforward, unabashed, and colorful candor.
She drove a lemon yellow 1985 Chrysler LeBaron convertible with whitewall tires. She shaved her hair down to the nub and wore wigs. Crimson one day, indigo or persimmon the next. The wigs were set in soft ringlets that bounced when she walked.
The bounce was mostly due to the fact that her left leg was an inch and a half shorter than her right. She said she liked the bounce and jiggle in her step and, aside from once slipping a pair of matchbooks into the heel of her shoe, as you might do to level a table in a cheap west side diner, she was pretty happy with the way her legs worked out all by themselves.
They first met by accident. He was going in the IN door at the city services building on West 23rd Street. It was a Saturday and his day off from work at the Superb Zipper Factory on Ninth near the Port Authority. It had previously been a button factory, which he found much easier on his fingers, but he stayed with the building when it changed hands. He had just finished a few hours of handball at the 92nd Street Y up on Lexington and was still in his sneakers and damp sweats, coming in to pick up hearing aid batteries. They were sixty-seven cents, per, cheaper there than the ones at the Duane Reade down the avenue.
And there was Irene, coming out of the very same IN door. She was brimming over with the efflorescence of self-efficacy and fulfillment, having just signed a long-term contract with her booking agent at City Sign Language Talent Consultants, LLC.
Harry backed out of the way, and told her he was sorry. She looked him over and signed in his face, “Look where you’re going next time, Bub!” He understood not a single word.
The next time he saw her was when he was at the Y for an afternoon lecture on the enduring influence of 1940’s Borscht Belt humor on post-modern stand-up comedy.
And there was Irene, once again, now adorning the podium, dressed in an ochre pantsuit with a magenta scarf draped over her left shoulder. When the speaker at the lectern began talking, Irene began signing.
“So, listen,” said the speaker, “You heard the one about the old Jewish man who was rescued from drowning at Jones Beach?” He pauses and looks slowly over the crowd. “Well, the lifeguard brings him in to shore, lies him down on a blanket, and says to him, ’Tell me, are you comfortable?’ And the portly old man looks up at him, arches an eyebrow and answers, ‘I make a living.’”
Irene then added, in sign, her own flourish of “Ba dump bump!”
After the talk, Harry approaches her and asks if she wants to grab a cup of coffee. She agrees and, at Effy’s Israeli Café, in the basement of the Y, he orders a coffee and thick slice of the pineapple cheesecake, and she has a tuna on rye toast with mayo, lettuce, tomato, an extra pickle, a side of herring in cream sauce, and a seltzer, no ice, with a slice of lime.
While they quietly eat, she says, “Harry, you’re humming!”
“Beg pardon?” he replies, through a mouth full of cheesecake, cupping his free hand around his good ear.
“You’re humming Harry. You know you hum when you chew?”
“What’s that? Honey in my stew? Never tried it.”
She lets it go.
Afterward, he invites her up to his third floor pre-war, rent-controlled apartment on 96th and First.
He unlocks the door, reaches in and flicks on the light. The TV has been left on, unopened mail and newspapers cover the floor. Books in stacks like perilous stalagmites.
She peeks in. The fetid odor of his aging, matted cats, half-eaten cartons of greasy garlic noodles, and uncountable half-pairs of unwashed gym socks and shorts hits her, to all of which he is happily oblivious.
“This place is a hell hole, Harry!” she tells him. “I’ll wait here while you clean up.”
He brings a folding chair out for her to sit on and in 15 minutes he comes back out with four full, thirty-three gallon flexible black trash bags, which he forces into the garbage chute at the end of the hall. He turns back to her with a grin, adjusts his tie, and opens the door.
She takes a sniff and says, while signing to him, “This is much better, Harry, much, much better.”
“But not so fast, Harry, I need some gloves, and you need a carpet sweeper,” she says, which he interprets her as saying, “Butternut, at last, Harry, he’s one lover, indeed an ardent keeper.”
Harry looks at Irene, not quite understanding, looks back into the apartment and, for the first time in all of his sixty-six years of untroubled and incandescent, though vacant, bachelordom, Harry Weiderhorn is in love.