John grabbed the small camera bag and held it close as he ran from the car to the porch. Like Steve, he was careful not to let the screen door bang as he stepped onto the porch. He shook the snow from his jacket and raised his eyebrows at Steve. Steve shook his head. Steve shrugged his head at the kitchen window. No luck. Harold was awake.
John sighed, “Steve, don’t leave me alone with him again. It’s not fair.”
“Fuck fair,” Steve whispered, “you’re not paying me enough to deal with him.”
John took off his gloves, “Fifty bucks if I can go straight up and you’ll deal with him.”
Steve was looking through the window. “He’s blank again. Make it a hundred and you’re on.”
John thought about it, but shook his head. He’d been serious when he’d offered fifty, but a hundred was too much. He wouldn’t be paid for the shoot for another three weeks and employing Steve cut pretty sharply into his budget. He was already two months late with Citibank and he didn’t want to slip any farther behind.
John steeled himself, grinned at Steve, took a deep breath and turned the knob on the door. Steve gave John a big smile and a double thumbs-up as John opened the door. John stepped into the kitchen and Steve followed. John set his bag down on the counter and turned to close the door as Steve nodded once, grunted something indistinct, and raced out of the kitchen and up the stairs. John shut the door and turned to face Harold.
Harold was sitting at the kitchen table. He was facing the door and staring vacantly at an empty space about three feet in front of John. Harold scratched the back of his neck and ran his swollen hand up the back of his neck, over the top of his bald head and back down over the front of his face. It was like a pantomime: Harold’s vacant expression wiped clean by those fat fingers and replaced with a doughy, sickly sweet smile. He stood up.
“Hey John! How was the day? Are you boys hungry? Maude made some chicken… we could heat that right up for you.” Harold hooked his fingers into the waistband of his frayed flannel pajama bottoms and hitched his pants up and down while he scratched at his belly.
John glanced up at the stairs after Steve and heard a door slam shut; Steve was already in his room. John looked back at Harold. “No thanks, Harold,” he said. “We already ate.”
Harold popped something messy and orange into his mouth as he shambled over to the counter and twisted a can of grape soda out of its plastic harness. “Thought you might have. Well then, grab yourself a pop and have a sit.”
Harold shambled back to the table and stood over his plate. The table was littered with little crumpled balls of dirty napkins. They were thickest where Harold had been sitting, partially obscuring a half-eaten bag of Oreos and a can of Cheez Whiz. Harold’s plate was littered with scraps and crumbs of his “special little samiches.” Harold set the can of grape soda down on the table, pawed at the bag of Oreos and fished out a cookie. He twisted it open and slowly, carefully, licked the two halves of the cookie clean. Then he grabbed the can of spray cheese and shot a ribbon of day-glo orange cheez onto the cookie. He assembled the cheezio and popped it into his mouth.
John realized he was staring and gave himself a little shake. Jesus Christ. He grabbed his camera bag off the counter and turned to the stairs. He was stopped by Harold’s hand on his shoulder. Harold squeezed and John turned, stifling a shudder.
“Young boy like you,” Harold said, “too early for bed!” Harold’s hand was soft and heavy. Harold moved his hand and caressed the back of John’s neck. At the best of times, Harold’s hands were a revulsion. His fingers were fat little sausages, unnaturally pink and greasy: bratwurst with dirty nails. Covered as they were now with flecks of day-glow orange spray cheeze, they looked and felt like a mass sweaty, pupating grubs writhing and squirming against the back of his neck. John pulled away and out from under Harold’s touch. “Really, I’m, OK,” John said.
Harold’s face went blank.
He didn’t frown or scowl, he just went blank. His expression died and his face went completely slack; his mouth hung open for a moment and his eyes lost focus. Harold brought his hand up to the back of his neck and wiped it over the top his head and down over his face. As his hand came down over his giant, shining pate, pale gray wisps of hair popped up from his scalp at odd angles. Harold was left with a corona of wispy gray-white hair flecked with bits of chocolate cookie and spray cheese. As his hand came down over his face, it was as if he was wiping away a flaccid latex mask: the vacant blank stare and slack-jawed gape was replaced. Harold was smiling again.
Harold popped a finger into his mouth and sucked off the cheeze. “Suit yourself,” he said. “I’m gonna stay up and watch some tube. Have some pop and samiches.”
John nodded. He was sure that if he opened his mouth, he would scream. Then he was gone, leaping up the stairs three at a time.
He heard Harold call up after him, “I love grape pop, Johnny! Hear me? I L-O-V-E love the grape pop.” John was opening the door to his room and Harold was almost shouting now. “Like the sweet kiss of a little baby boy. Like a sweet little baby. Sleep tight, Johnny boy.”