When We Met Harry Over the Trash
Karen Joyce Williams
It’s him again, the white van, his red taillights glaring at us from far ahead. Are we on Dinsmore? Willow? Whatever its name, it’s a long block with only one break for a side street exit. Blocks like this one leave you exposed in the “curbing” game: to the windows where owners peer out behind curtains, some curious, some fearful, and some kindred.
That was Harry Sikorski: kindred spirit. No curious window peeking for Harry. He bounded out of his faded yellow front door, leading with a strong forelock of white hair and leathery arms, right down to the curb where we were searching through a large pile full of cut wood, steel wool, and a few half-used cans of furniture stain. For each item Al fished out, Harry had a story. The coffee can of dowels, all uniformly sheared off one inch from the top, were from twenty-five years ago, the day after his father died and he needed to take his mind off of things. Harry said he was so hell bent on finishing the dresser his father had started that he cut all of the dowels two inches too short. He spun his yarn then hooked his loose-jointed hands, always the action accompaniment to his stories, into his waistband and I guess thought of his father. The world in front of the yellow house became thick and stilled. For just a moment, until he erupted in a belly laugh at himself and his memories.
Harry was ninety-two when we met him and just finishing up an addition on his tidy cape cod. On some days we helped him haul firewood into the house from outside his shed where he’d start his mornings by chopping wood. Other days, he would tell juicy stories about the neighborhood women from 1940 while he worked on his projects. He was a master carpenter and had learned the most unusual rattan chair building craft from his father. Lined up in his basement workshop were pieces of chair backs, half-finished seats, and one attractive chair that he never seemed to complete. He added a flourish here and an intricate knot there; I had never seen handcrafted chairs like this and I was enthralled by his skill. I sat with him for hours, watching his knobby, nimble fingers weaving in and out, munching on Polish pastry.
Harry, I think, was secretly glad for the company.
We only pulled a few wee odds from the curb the first evening we met, but we would come back weekly to sit under the overhang of his little shed. We are “curbers”, vintage-loving scavengers of the suburban kind. The three of us conspired on plans to “up-cycle” trash into new creations right there in Harry’s driveway, the blacktop rolling out to the loot he would leave every pre-garbage day evening. Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road to Oz.
We could easily pan the street and certainly weren’t surprised when the white van, our “curbing” nemesis, cruised slowly by the house one evening. I looked at Al and started to comment, but Harry bolted up from that green-plaid aluminum lawn chair and deftly tripped into a run down the drive. The chair scraped against the blacktop and folded closed with a clumsy snap.
“Hey!” he was yelling at the white van, waving his oak-stained arms over his head.
We raced down next to him, only to watch the white van picking up speed down the long street and squealing around the corner. By now evening had deepened into an early shade of night and the cool had come back into August, if only for few dark hours.
“What happened, Harry?” Al asked. “Did that guy steal something?”
Harry dropped his arms to his sides, still wearing an undershirt that seemed appropriate for the earlier heat of the day. Now I was chilly and pulled my sweater tighter around my shoulders. Even Harry unconsciously rubbed his sinewy arms in the evening air.
“He didn’t do nothing,” Harry said, raising his voice. “The guy, he came and picked up some metal a few weeks back, he don’t speak English too good so I tried to tell him to come back for more, but he never came. So now here he is again, and I’m trying to help the guy. He wants metal for scrap, I guess, but he’s flying down the street like I’m the cops or something,” he said, shaking his head while that great flag of white hair wagged from side to side.
* * *
One evening toward the end of the summer, when the hints of hurricane season on Long Island are as real as the acrid smells from the wood Harry had started to burn in an old metal drum, he met us at the end of the driveway and hustled us into our familiar metal chairs in front of the shed. He went in the house and brought out a chair that his father had made and gave it to me. I tried not to cry. There they were, all of Harry’s knots and bows and embellishments, a completed masterpiece.
Three weeks later, Harry was gone. He had packed up everything and moved to North Carolina.
We did get a postcard from Harry a few months after he left. At the urging of an unseen daughter, our friend had pulled up stakes and the yellow cape rested in silence next to that familiar black driveway. We never stop there any more.
My husband says I never forget names and faces and that I always surprise folks when I greet them by name after five, ten years have passed, even if ours was just a passing acquaintance. I suppose I won’t be seeing Harry again, though, as it’s been almost twenty years now. We still catch glimpses of the white van, slowing down to scoop up a discarded bench or even a rusty baker’s rack, but it may not even be the same van. I’m better at remembering people’s faces and names than cars and vans and such.