Sometimes I wish we could print off the pictures we see in our mind’s eye. I would print off a picture of Harlee right now so you could see him with me. He was probably about 6’2″ or more when he stood up straight and maybe in his late 50s to early 60s or maybe he just aged that way because he was with us for so long. The old lady (my uncle’s wife, but I always think of her as “the old lady”) always shaved his head when he would start to get hair so he just had a gray permanent balding buzz cut.
Harlee wore khaki pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt with a white undershirt underneath. I don’t know about underwear; we weren’t those kinds of friends. White socks and tan work boots. All the time, every day, winter or summer, and the old lady only let him bathe once a week. He was permanently sweat-stained and smelled a little gamey at times but I never held that against him. I knew it wasn’t his fault and I do think he was embarrassed by it.
I remember the year Bonnie Marie almost killed him (she’s my adopted sister, 12 years older to the day) If you have a weak stomach, now’s the time you should probably quit reading and go find a nice photo of some flowers to soothe your delicate nature. This story isn’t for the faint of heart by any means.
The old lady kept what today would be Assisted Living; back when I was a kid, it was called keeping ‘foster people’. Folks stayed in your house, put there by the State for which they paid her $250 monthly per person, and you cooked for them, washed their laundry, told them when to bathe, made sure they didn’t run off, etc. We had a blind lady one time, Bertha, who gave me a string of fake pearls for Christmas one year; the trouble was, she had a died a few months earlier of a heart attack but the old lady had found them with a note that they were for me. I felt weird and kept them for a long, long time until I didn’t feel weird anymore.
There was Martha Kirkland; she was in her 50s and had huge boobs, 50DDs, which she picked up constantly as she walked. I don’t know if it was habit or if they hurt or maybe she just made poor brassiere choices but that’s how I see Martha in my mind. Oh and she licked her bottom lip a lot; this was way before crank so no, she wasn’t geeking. My adopted brother, Kenny, played strip poker with her once while I watched through a crack in the curtain. When they heard me, she went back to her room and refused to play anymore; Kenny had to put the card table up and was very mad at me.
Then there was Harlee. Harlee started out living in one of the front bedrooms (we had nine bedrooms) but he was such a big guy (not like 800 pounds big but more like over 6 foot and probably 260, broad shoulders, just a big guy) that eventually he was moved outside to the backyard cottage. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it, but it was really our old barn, converted inside to be a big bedroom with a dresser and a big rocker and a full size bed.
Anyway, one year the old lady and the old man (my uncle) took off for a weekend, leaving Bonnie Marie in charge. I was probably 9 or ten; I don’t really remember. I didn’t grow much as a child so unless I can associate a particular school grade in my head with my memories, I don’t know how old I am a lot of the time.
Bonnie decided and why she told me, geez I can’t even speculate on, to test Harlee’s taste buds. Harlee was a funny guy in that respect. He said he didn’t like turkey so on Thanksgiving or Christmas (when we had turkey), the old lady told him it was chicken and he ate it. Likewise on a few other things. If he said he didn’t like something, the old lady would just tell him it was something else. So Bonnie cooked chili that day. Then she defecated on a plate, cut it up into meatball sized portions, and put it in Harlee’s chili. He always had a glass of powered milk and she peed into his glass and then filled it up with milk. Harlee ate every bite and drank all of his milk. I didn’t eat anything until after the old lady and the old man had come home and Bonnie had went back to her house. I never told. You didn’t tell things you saw in that house. Bad stuff happened to you if you did, way worse than the stuff that happened anyway.
I can’t say with positive certainty that the year Bonnie fed Harlee cut up turds is the same year that he almost died, hospitalized for hepatitis. I do remember how yellow he turned from the jaundice. But I learned in my adulthood that eating feces can cause such things so in my heart, I’m pretty sure that Bonnie almost killed this sweet old man. I know she thought it was funny, and I’m certain she wouldn’t have killed him on purpose; well, I don’t think she would have anyway. Hmmm..yeah, I don’t know now that I think about it.
But this story was about Harlee. My protector, my friend, my companion in the darkness of early morning adventures. No, nothing creepy ever. Creepy shit from almost everybody else but never from Harlee. He was a good man. On Friday and Saturday nights, I would get up at 3 AM, go out to the cottage, knock and get Harlee up, sometimes grumbling, sometimes not, and we would walk the few blocks to the neighborhood bars, with empty croaker sacks and leave with full ones – aluminum cans. Treasure!
We would smash the cans and once a month the old lady would take me to sell them. We never got more than 4 or 5 bucks and Harlee never wanted his share but I was young enough that this was a fortune. We had to go so early because the real “can guy” came about 4 AM so we had to beat him there. I realize now that’s wrong but then it just seemed to be what we had to do to make money. One time we were in the shadows of the woods behind the Shrimpboat Bar and we heard him cussing when he found the empty bins with just a few bottles in them.
I remember Harlee best, sitting in one of the metal chairs in the front yard, whittling on sticks. He would just whittle them away and then do another. I’m not sure why. Oh and his notebooks. He carried little notebooks and a pencil. When he wanted to write something down, he would and then he would ask me to read it to him. I would make stuff up because Harlee couldn’t read or write. He just scribbled loops over and over, imitating cursive writing. So I would just say whatever came into my head and he would nod and agree with me that I’d gotten it right. Then he would put the notebook and the little pencil back in his shirt pocket.
I remember one time Harlee threw an absolute fit when the old lady or the old man, I don’t remember which, was going to beat me for something stupid and Harlee just got up and put me behind him and in that voice, I think he had something wrong with his tongue (he was so hard to understand but I spent a lot of time with him, so I could understand him but strangers almost never did) he told whoever it was that they weren’t going to hit me, not then, not in front of him. I remember he said something like, “Go on, get out of here” to them and gestured to the house. He was so mad, he was red. It was very brave of him. I don’t remember why or when he came to leave our house. I honestly hope that wasn’t why and if it is, I hope I never remember.