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72

 

Affenlight rapped on the door. No answer. He pulled the pilfered key from his pocket, slipped it into the lock.

A dense stench, like that of a fetid locker room, assailed him before he could cross the threshold. He retreated to the stairwell, sucked in a breath of clean air, and entered the room, which was shrouded in evening gloom. No Henry. He raised the drawn shades and threw open the windows. Scattered across Henry’s blond-wood desk were several cylindrical plastic tubs of the kind yogurt or margarine comes in. Dotlike fruit flies buzzed about the lidless ones. They looked to be full of different kinds of congealed soup. Affenlight shooed the flies, picked up two of the containers, and carried them toward the checkerboard-floored bathroom, intending to dump them down the toilet.

The bathroom lights were out, but there in the tub lay Henry, naked, submerged to his neck in water tinged a pale unpleasant yellow. His diaphragm rose and fell, trembling the water. He was asleep.

Affenlight glanced down at the soup in his hands. Chicken noodle on the left, with a thin scrim of fat on the surface, split pea on the right. Henry looked ghastly pale, except for his scruffy brown beard and matching pubic hair. His slack hands were shriveled like white-grape raisins, his internal liquids leached out into the larger body of the tub. His jaw clenched and unclenched. Crammed inside that undersize tub, his cheeks drawn, flaccid muscles submerged in the stagnant water, he seemed both too large and too small for himself, precisely the wrong size.

Affenlight stealthily exited the bathroom, set the soup on the desk, and lit a cigarette. The pain had vanished for a while, but now it returned, this time in his chest. He sat down on the arm of the rose-colored chair to smoke and wait it out. It was strong, but not especially worrisome—he’d had a similar sensation a few times lately after serious exertion, whether with Owen or on the treadmill upstairs, and he knew that it would pass. When it did he tried to decide what to do about Henry.

There seemed to be no clean clothes in Henry’s dresser, so he opened Owen’s and pulled out the most masculine-looking pair of briefs. He dug around further until he found a clean white T-shirt and a pair of drawstring pants. He took a towel from the closet shelf, wrapped the clothes in it, and, having removed his shoes so as to make less noise, slipped into the bathroom to set the bundle on the checkerboard floor beside the tub. Then he shut the bathroom door and knocked on it. “Henry?” he called. “Are you there?”

Sloshing noises came from behind the door. “Minit,” Henry groaned, sounding weakened and annoyed. Affenlight heard water draining from the tub, gurgling through the pipes and finishing with a slurping flourish. He stubbed out his cigarette and flicked it through the open window. A minute later Henry came through the bathroom door, dressed in Owen’s clothes. His eyes looked sullen and uncommunicative, as if trapped behind thick glass. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” replied Affenlight with false chipperness conjured from who knew where. “I hope I didn’t disturb your bath. I just wanted to let you know that—” How to phrase it? The Harpooners? The baseball team? You? We? Affenlight was even less a part of the we than Henry now, though Henry didn’t know that. “—we won today.”

“I know.” Henry’s voice was flat and dull, like hammered steel. “Owen called.”

“Oh. You spoke to Owen?”

“He left a message.”

“Ah.” He looked awful, emaciated, his cheeks concave and gray above his beard. “When did you last eat?” Affenlight asked.

Henry thought about it. “I don’t know.”

“What about the soup?”

He shrugged. “Pella leaves it.”

“But you don’t eat it.”

“No.”

The Westish payroll was packed with professional counselors, people schooled in the art of connecting with students who were bulimic, anorexic, alcoholic, depressed, distressed, drug-addicted, suicidal. Presumably the proper course would be to deliver Henry to such a counselor. There had to be a campus hotline, someone on call around the clock at whatever they called the infirmary nowadays. A Person To Talk To. An impartial person: Affenlight had spent maybe ten minutes total with Henry, but their lives were too entwined. Owen. Pella. Henry’s parents. All that knowing filled the room and threatened to make talking impossible.

There was that damned register, still sitting on the mantel above the fireplace. Affenlight picked up the baseball that was resting against it. The ball’s smooth white flesh was marred by a few scuff marks that gently abraded his fingertips. Amid his confused and wounded thoughts it struck him that a baseball was a beautifully designed thing—it seemed to demand to be thrown, made him want to give it a good strong toss through the open window and across the dove-gray quad. As he bandied it from palm to fingertips and back, he realized that he had spoken.

“You’re flying to South Carolina in the morning.”

Henry looked at him dully.

“I already bought your ticket,” Affenlight said.

Henry lay down on the unmade bed, laid his ear on the pillow. His body was curling and closing into itself, like an old arthritic hand or a daylily at nightfall. “Can’t,” he said. “I’ve got a final tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. Only freshpersons have finals.”

“Today,” Henry said wearily. “I had a final today.”

“You can take it later. When the rest of the team takes theirs.”

It was getting dark. Affenlight stood in his socks in the center of the rug, tossing the baseball from hand to hand. “You can’t stay here forever,” he added sternly. “The dorms have to be clear by next weekend.”

Henry’s face collapsed and he started to sob, so loudly that Affenlight had no choice but to sit down on the bed beside him and pat his shoulder and whisper what he hoped were calming words, words like sssh and hey and it’s okay. Henry slowed to a whimper and seemed on the verge of regaining his breath, but then the sobbing crescendoed again and he became almost hysterical, his head tipped back and his mouth agape. He started to hiccup. Snot bubbled out of his nose as he sucked hard at the air. A dark sheen of sweat arose on the back of his neck. “Sssshh,” Affenlight said softly, rubbing his back in clockwise circles between the shoulder blades. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” He felt a coolness in the room, especially on the strip of skin where his pant cuffs had ridden up above his socks.

“Sorry,” Henry said, wiping his eyes, once the several waves of sobbing had passed.

“Hush now,” Affenlight said. “You just take it easy.”

Affenlight brought Henry a wad of toilet paper with which to blow his nose. On the windowsill sat a bunch of bananas, an outsize box of Rice Krispies, and the proper dishware. Affenlight opened the minifridge and found a half gallon of milk—Owen’s way, no doubt, of trying to provide for Henry in his absence. Affenlight poured a bowl of cereal, carved off banana slices with the spoon, added milk. He didn’t quite spoon-feed Henry, but he did sit beside him with a hand on Henry’s shoulder, murmuring his approval at each swallowed bite. With his free hand he lit a cigarette, lit another when it was done. Henry grimaced at the first spoonful, and as it reached his stomach he looked like he might vomit, but after a few bites things went more smoothly. He made it most of the way through the bowl and lay down drowsily.

“You have to leave early to make the flight,” Affenlight said. “I’ll set your alarm.”

Henry nodded.

“I’ll drive you to the airport. Meet me outside by the statue. Six o’clock sharp.”

Henry yawned and nodded again. It wasn’t clear whether he was really listening or whether Affenlight would have to come here tomorrow morning and drag him out of bed; either way was fine. Affenlight took the cereal bowl and the fly-clotted soup containers to the bathroom, dumped them down the sink, rinsed them, and set them on Owen’s desk to dry. On his way out he snapped off the light.

“President Affenlight?” Henry said.

Affenlight paused in the doorway. “Yes?”

“G’night.”

Affenlight smiled. “Don’t forget your uniform.”

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