Harrison Williams lived in a treehouse. It was nestled into a series of high crooks in a giant oak tree; the oak tree was so immense that it hung over into at least two adjacent lawns.
Each morning, Harrison climbed down the tree, got on his bicycle, and rode down Anderson Street to Martha's Grocery. He swept the floor and restocked the shelves, and Martha would pay him with a bit of cash and some fresh produce. Each afternoon, Harrison would ride back to his treehouse and climb back up, carrying the produce with him.
Harrison kept to himself a lot. His parents had died a few years earlier in a car accident, and rather than cleaning out the house and adopting it as his own, Harrison had just left the house alone, even leaving that morning's newspaper out on the table. Instead, he just stopped talking much at all, stopped cutting his hair, and moved out to the treehouse in the giant oak tree on Anderson Street.
Harrison’s parents were quiet, just like Harrison. They didn’t own a television, and would spend many evenings sitting on wicker chairs on the front porch, reading novels and listening to old records by Billie Holiday or Etta James. Sometimes, they’d stop for a bit, look into each other’s eyes, and talk about the magic held in those printed lines. When they finished one, the two of them would get into their car and drive to the local bookstore, where they would select a new novel and purchase two copies. One for each of them, so they could each read it and then talk about it.
Harrison didn’t read as much as his parents did; he spent most of his time before they died fixing old clocks and watches. He liked to watch the gears twist together, making the hands of the clock move around like a gently expressive woman. After his parents died, Harrison started to read the novels that they left behind. Many nights a light would be shining up in the tree as Harrison read a novel by lantern.
Martha, who ran the old grocery store, felt desperately sorry for Harrison, so a few weeks after the accident, she went to the Williams residence and knocked on the door. She gave Harrison a box of fresh fruits and vegetables and asked him if he would stock shelves at the grocery store. Each morning after that, he would ride his bicycle to Martha’s, wearing a white shirt and black pants and with his face cast downwards. He usually carried a novel in his bike’s basket, which he would read while eating lunch in front of the store.
Mary shopped at Martha’s Grocery. Every morning at eleven, she would stop into the store and say hello to Martha, who was usually sitting at a stool at the check out counter, reading the latest issue of McCall’s or Woman’s Day. Mary would then proceed to the produce section and pick out a few vegetables for lunch and dinner. Mary lived alone and had two cats named Jelly and Roll, and she didn’t eat any meat. She read long novels, sometimes as many as three a week. She wrote them, too, and would mail out copies wrapped in brown paper to publishing houses.
By the time Mary finished up her shopping, Harrison had already started his lunch break. He would sit on the bench in front of Martha’s Grocery, eating a tuna sandwich and reading a book. Mary would see Harrison sitting there, reading and chewing, and she would think of stopping to talk to him, or perhaps even sitting down next to him. Instead, she kept on walking. This went on most every day for years.
Harrison’s life seemed destined to go on like this forever, and it probably would have, too, if Martha hadn’t looked up from her Ladies Home Journal one autumn day and watched Harrison eat his sandwich and read his book. What she saw with her eyes was a young man with long brown hair, chewing on tuna and bread, and reading Dubliners. What she saw with her heart was a man with a huge scar running through him that hadn’t healed right because no one was there to take care of him. She looked at Harrison and saw his mother’s eyes, the same eyes that came into the store almost every day and managed to make Martha laugh each time. She looked at Harrison and saw his father’s furrowed brow, the same furrowed brow that would look over her accounts and handle her tax forms each year out of the kindness of his heart. Martha saw these two beautiful people sitting there, pieced together into a person who missed them as much as she did.
The next day, as Harrison was making his sandwich, Martha stuck her head into the back room and asked Harrison to make her one, too. He looked up at her, his chocolate brown eyes seeming to Martha to be Lily Williams looking at her from beyond the grave. And he nodded.
Martha and Harrison sat out on the bench in front of her grocery store that day. The colors of a Midwestern autumn floated gently down the street as the two of them chewed on their sandwiches. Martha didn’t know what to say, really, but somehow it seemed enough to her to sit with Harrison as the two of them watched a car roll by on the street. When Martha glanced over her shoulder and saw Mary standing at the checkout counter, she went back inside, leaving Harrison alone on the bench.
Mary turned to the tinkle of the bell as Martha entered the store, then Mary’s eyes drifted over to Harrison, who had picked up his copy of Dubliners and returned to his marked spot. Martha started ringing up the items and went forth with the idle talk that was the usual part of their noontime chatter, when Mary asked Martha about the brown-haired boy. After four years of seeing him daily, Mary still didn’t know Harrison’s name.
Martha told her about Henry and Lily Williams, about how the two of them lived and how they died, and about the boy they had left behind and the interim years that had left him an emptied, quiet man. Mary looked at Harrison and for just a brief moment, she closed her eyes, tears filling their corners.
Mary walked out in front of the shop and saw Harrison sitting there, lost in his reading. She stood there for a long minute, watching the young man as if through a one way mirror, existing in another world than the one he filled, but somehow one that she felt like she understood. She watched him, and as the moment passed, she walked onward, back to her home, back to the safety of Jelly and Roll.
The wind grew cold that evening, and so Harrison brought blankets up to his treehouse from the linen closet in the house. It would be another Illinois winter in the treehouse, which meant cold nights and walls made from blankets. At the same time, Mary was on the other side of town, on top of a stepladder, pulling book after book off of shelves. She reached back, deep into the recesses of her literary archives, and pulled forth a volume that fit nicely on the palm of her hand.
After darkness came light, and Harrison again found himself with a tuna sandwich in one hand and a book in the other, when one of the regular customers at Martha’s walked out of the front door, walked over to the bench, placed a book on the seat next to him, and walked away. Harrison didn’t even notice the book for several minutes, his mind lost in a parallel universe, but as his mind returned to Anderson Street and he attempted to stand up, his hand brushed against the volume. He replayed in his mind the images of a brown-haired woman wearing a flannel shirt and tennis shoes watching him for a moment, then leaving a book on the bench.
He picked up the volume and looked it over, noticing that a folded note rested just inside the front cover. He opened the book and then the note, his eyes scanning over a piece of legal paper mostly filled with handwritten thoughts, ending with a single word. Mary. On his way home that night, Harrison could be seen with two books in his bicycle rack, nestled in among the produce.
As fall descended into winter, Mary and Harrison stumbled into a pattern. After a day or two of reading, Mary would notice that her book would be sitting on the bench next to Harrison, with another volume underneath it. The first time Harrison did this, Mary stopped only to retrieve her own book, but as she did it, Harrison reached over and handed her the second volume. Mary would return books to Harrison regularly, and often leave new things for him to read as well. A book exchange began, but there was more to it than that; brief letters were stuck in between the first few pages of the newly-shared book.
The cold winter wind started to blow in off of the lake, and soon the quiet town was buried in whiteness. Harrison moved his daily lunch inside to the checkout counter during the coldest days, and still their delicate dance continued. Harrison would spend the evening up in the treehouse beside his lantern, huddled in a mass of blankets with an icy breeze sneaking in through the cracks, his eyes focused on line after line of text. Inside a little apartment across town sat Mary, Jelly on her lap and Roll asleep at her side, her fingers fidgeting as she tried to write down words that said what she wanted them to say. She flipped her pen over and over in her hand and chewed on the tip as the words that usually came so easily when talking about the lives of those who didn’t exist somehow failed to flow when she wrote about herself. Flowing through the air between them was an open but silent connection, much like the first moment that a television station would go on the air back in the old days; the test signal would be replaced by blackness, but no joy had come to fill their lonely programming day.
The two continued their silent communication throughout the winter and into spring. Harrison returned to his daily spot on the bench out in front of Martha’s Grocery and their book exchange continued without a spoken word, but between the exchanged pages were letters. The first ones were tentatively written descriptions of the described books, but as the pages of the calendar fell to the floor and November became March, the letters began to change. Instead of plot summaries and connections to other novels, the faintest hints of connections to their lives began to seep into their traded missives. Faint strokes were beginning to show up on previously empty canvasses, revealing the vaguest outlines of quiet, solitary lives.
Martha sat at her chair behind the counter, always with a magazine in her hand, but her eyes couldn’t fail to miss the delicate dance that the two were sharing. Like an old traveling man sitting in front of a campfire at the end of a long day, she saw the faintest embers begging for a bit of fresh air to build something larger, and so she leaned forward and chose the exact moment to exhale.
Each year, Harrison received a single remembrance for his birthday; a small gift from Martha. It was usually a book, and somehow Martha had a sense of what to buy for him. Her actual magic was that of observation; she would write down the titles of books he would read and take them to a local bookstore for recommendations. Martha would come over after work on the night of his birthday and cook a dinner for the two of them, the only meal that Harrison would eat in the house the whole year. The two of them would talk and remember Henry and Lily, and at the end of the evening, Martha would leave as Harrison found his way back into the treehouse.
This year there were going to be three for dinner at the Williams house. Without giving even the faintest hint of what she had in mind, Martha invited Mary to a small party she was having and gave her the address of the house, telling her to look for the giant oak tree. Suspicious that Mary would not come, Martha nearly begged for her to put in just a small appearance, deciding that the suspicion that this might arouse would be worth it if she could get Mary to show up.
It was a cool April afternoon when Martha pulled into the driveway; rather than hiding in the treehouse, Harrison was waiting for her in the grass at the side of the house. The two went inside and began cooking together and talking about the past while Martha kept her eye on the clock, watching the minutes tick by. Just as dinner was about to reach the table and Martha had given up all hope of Mary’s appearance, a faint knock came at the door. Harrison seemed to ignore it, so Martha closed her eyes, said a quick prayer, and walked to the front door to let Mary in.
Martha quickly set another place at the table as Harrison and Mary looked cautiously at each other without speaking. The three of them dined in almost complete silence, broken only by Martha’s occasional attempt at opening up conversation. As their plates sat empty before them and heavy silence filled the room, Martha’s frustration finally boiled over.
Martha looked straight across the table at Mary and said, “I’ve let you sit at home for twelve years missing your father, letting you write your sad little novels and build up a depressed little world for yourself to live in. It’s gone on long enough. I miss your father just as much as you do, and I know that it still hurts, but sitting in a tiny apartment ... or up in a treehouse ... completely alone isn’t the way to remember.” And with that, Martha got up and walked out of the house; a few seconds later, the sound of her engine starting filtered into the house.
Harrison and Mary sat there for several minutes, neither of them able to speak, as the sound of Martha’s car drifted downwards into silence. The ticking of a grandfather clock filled the room, and with each swing of the pendulum the silence became thicker, nearly drowning the pair.
Finally, Harrison picked up his dishes and carried them to the sink, where he began to run hot water. As the sink filled with water, Harrison cleared the table and began to wash the dishes. Mary sat there unmoving, staring at the now empty chair across from her. Her heart pulled her in two different directions; one half wanted her to get up and run away immediately, to run back to the safety of her warm couch, with Jelly and Roll by her side, curled up with a good book.
The other half wanted to stay.
Mary sat there, her heart pulling her in two different directions as Harrison’s hands quickly washed the dishes. Her eyes turned to him as he sat them off to the side to be dried as soon as he finished with the cleaning. And in just that moment, the die was cast. She walked up beside him, took a cloth into her hands, and started to dry the dishes, piling them carefully on the table to put away later. The two of them finished the dishes in silence, then stood there for a minute, trying to avoid looking at each other.
Harrison finally looked at the floor, then up at her. “I don’t know what to say,” and her eyes immediately said the same thing.
Harrison said, “I want you to see something,” and then led her into the next room. As Mary stepped into the room, she could see that one of the walls had a bookshelf that was filled to the brim with hardback books, most of them in pairs. Harrison walked over towards one of the walls, where there was a photograph of two young people sitting in a pub.
“They went to Ireland on their honeymoon because they wanted to see Dublin. They fell in love reading James Joyce aloud to each other; Mom told me that they would stay up all night, holding each other, reading. They never lost that love.”
Mary reached out and wrapped her fingers into Harrison’s as the two of them stood in the shelf-lined room. After a moment more, the two of them walked silently to the front porch of the house, where a pair of wicker chairs had sat covered and unmolested for years. Mary uncovered them and the two sat down in the chairs, looking out at the view of Anderson Street. Across the pavement, two children played in the yard.
Harrison looked at her. “I woke up one morning and they were ... gone. They left behind this house and it was filled with their love. They were so full of unquestioning love ... not just for each other, but for everything. I moved out there because I didn’t want to forget them. I didn’t want to leave them behind. They deserve more than that.”
There was nothing she could say to that; no words could touch the sense of loss. Mary closed her eyes for a second and the image of a shelf full of records inside the house came into her mind. She went inside, pulled out a record, and carried it back out to the porch, where she placed the record on the turntable and put a needle into the groove.
As the first delicate notes began, Mary put her hand into Harrison’s and ever so gently pulled him into a standing position. She placed one of her hands in his and they fell into place, looking into each other’s eyes. Together they swayed to the crackling sound of Etta James, her voice and their tentative steps filling the house with warmth that it hadn’t held in many years.
Sometimes in the early evening of a warm summer day, when you walk along Anderson Street and go past the big house with the enormous oak tree behind it, you can see two people sitting in chairs on the front porch. They’ll both be reading, and if you look even closer, you’ll see that they’re both reading the same one.