Harry at Peace

Harry Erskine had found his happy place, the place where the world came the closest to making sense. Things never really made complete sense to Harry's confused mind, but at least here he could be distracted from his reality, and soothed from fully grasping his increasingly dire situation. His happy place, oddly, wasn't one specific place at all. Rather, it was anywhere he happened to be while he was holding the hat.

The hat was, in itself, unremarkable. Knit of rough wool on some far-off assembly line, it was one of those warm, round-topped hats worn by fishermen as they braved the rolling waves and flying mist of the frigid Northern seas, sliding across the brine-soaked deck in hip-high boots trying to corral their netted quarry while not falling overboard. Either fishermen, or the fearless and reckless ironworkers who walked their sprightly dance along narrow beams while building the great skyscrapers of New York City, their wool hats protecting their heads from the bitter chill of the biting winds which threatened, at any time, to blow them from their tenuous perch forty, fifty, sixty floors above the street.

It was unlikely, however, that this particular hat had ever served such a glorious and distinguished past. Mottled here and there with spots of greasy dirt, it had been found years before in a long-forgotten alley, its previous owner not having even gone to the trouble of throwing it in the trash bin. But its previous owners, the Newfoundland fisherman and New York ironworker, now existed solely in Harry's fading but still-productive imagination.

The hat usually rested clutched in Harry's withered hands, held firmly to give him a sense of security and to protect it from any stranger who might inexplicably snatch it away from him. Such a stranger probably didn't exist anywhere in the world, but Harry still kept a wary watch.

Today, like most days, Harry sat on the sidewalk with his back resting against the rough brick wall of a neighborhood bank. Here, virtually in the shadow of the Chicago Historical Society, the sidewalk was wide and ran right to the edge of the bank, whose wall provided a decent shelter from the Northwest wind. Harry's customary spot was situated close enough to the bus stop to give any passing policeman the impression that he was simply waiting for the downtown express.

More than likely, this is not what a policeman truly believed, but wanted to believe. If the cop could momentarily convince himself that the partly-coherent wretch sitting huddled against the wind clutching something--a hat?--to his chin had somewhere to go, then he wouldn't have to leave the warmth of the squad car. The cop had rousted enough homeless people in his day, only to have them drift right back the moment he left, to keep him right here where the vents blew warm air and his fresh cup of coffee sat on the dashboard, creating a small circle of steam on the windshield. Easier to think that the guy had a purpose, instead of being just another one that needed to be moved along.

Ten or twenty squad cars had passed uninterrupted this morning, leaving Harry in peace. He sat with his knees pulled up, clutching the hat with both hands, its grimy brim resting safely against his chin. His eyes were focused, sharply and intently, on a spot a few indeterminate feet in front of him. He looked outward without seeing anything in the world around him--the walk light which flashed off and on in its endless cycle, the stately presence of the Historical Society across the street, and the lush green of Lincoln Park just beyond.

Copyright 1999, P.J. Anderson