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“I am FINISHED with this! Do NOT call on me again!”
Hilda Beauregard’s words exploded through the slop house as she stormed away from the table, leaving Harvey Navin alone and mortified. He could feel her words clench and pierce his heart, like a vice grip with talons. He could feel every damn eye in the joint boring in on him, and he could hear the snickers and titters, and the fumbling of silverware and plates as some diners relished the scene like a bullfight and others wished they could be somewhere – ANYwhere – else, away from such an embarrassing moment.
Harvey felt himself turn a blazing red, desperate to say something – ANYthing – to defend himself and deflect the bore of a room full of eyes penetrating his broken soul. But all he could do was sputter, “she had to catch a jet airplane!” and cackle like a witch. He knew that this awful line just made it worse, so he immediately clapped his hands and yelled, “Waiter! A menu, please!” Never mind that there were two plates of half-eaten Chop Suey on the table. A waiter brought a menu over, and Harvey buried his face in it.
So this is it. Dumped like a hot anvil in a lousy dime-store Chinatown slop house. Nice going, chump!
Harvey stirred the noodles around on his plate. He fought like hell to hold back, but a tear escaped his welled-up eye and ran slowly down his cheek, like a rivulet of rain through a sand dune.
Well, old pal, you haven’t amounted to much, have you? You weren’t much of a student. You weren’t much of a soldier. You aren’t much of a salesman. And now you’ve gone and spooked off your best gal. A fine job you’ve done! And look at you, sobbing in front of the world like a coward! No wonder you’re such a bum!”
Harvey made a mountain of Chop Suey with the fork in his right hand while he fingered the bead in his left hand.
He was an average student at best in high school, always shy and awkward, and he welcomed the chance to drop out. At 17, in May, 1943, Harvey lied about his age and enlisted. He was shipped off to boot camp, and soon found out that his new world wasn’t much better than his old world.
Harvey Navin was never going to be an All-American at anything. He played no sports in school, and he often struggled in boot camp, wilting under the barking commands of his drill sergeant. His fellow enlistees never let him forget it when his clumsiness cost them extra laps. Harvey was part of a battalion that helped capture the Reichstag, but that glory paled in comparison to all the death and dismemberment he had seen. He was never able to put the carnage of war behind him.
After he came home from the war, Harvey flopped around for a bit, finally landing a job as a salesman for an appliance company. But the war stayed with him, and he never really got his confidence back, not that he had any confidence anyway. Harvey tried to be positive in every meeting, but he often found himself distracted, suddenly remembering a past embarrassment: the time he mispronounced a word in class; the time he tripped on a log while running an obstacle course; the time he almost fell off the deck of his ship halfway across the Atlantic. Sometimes he remembered the war: the stench of death; the shrapnel-mangled bodies lying in the mud; the spray of blood as a battalion-mate’s head exploded from artillery fire right before his eyes.
Once the embarrassing memory came, Harvey felt all the eyes in the world pierce his broken soul and heard the snickers and titters all over again. Once the war memory came, he felt his heartbeat race and his breathing get heavy. Once the memory came, it was all over: Harvey started stammering and sweating, and his sales pitch fell apart. He felt the pressure and half expected every day at the office to be his last. His boss, Mr. Greenberg, gave as many chances as he could, but Harvey could feel his time running out.
Harvey was surprised to find that he was fingering the bead as he sat at the table, and even more surprised that it was out of its ampoule. The bead. That’s what his battalion called the cyanide pills given to German soldiers in case of capture and torture. One bite and it was all over. Himmler and Göring both went out on a one-course cyanide dinner, in fact. Harvey’s battalion killed several high-level German soldiers, all of whom had the pills on their person, and they all pocketed the beads. It was their little souvenir from the Fall of the Third Reich.
Harvey sat at the table, fingering the bead in his trembling left hand, thinking of all he had been through in his short life and thinking of the way Hilda had just destroyed him.
Gee-whiz, I was just trying to be sweet. Who knew she would get so sore like that? Boy, a fella gets a little nervous and says a few things not quite right and…
“Daddy, you MISSED it! She said she was FINISHED with this an’ told him not to call on her again! An’ then she WALKED OUT!”
The boy was pointing right at Harvey, and the father swatted his hand down. “Son, it’s not polite to point and say things like that” he said.
But it was too late. Once again, every damn eye in that stinking slop house was boring in on the broken soul of Harvey Navin. Once again, he heard all the snickers and titters. Once again he felt every embarrassment he ever felt in his whole goddamn short life, and once again he felt all the horrors of the war, fresh and vivid like a never-ending nightmare.
Jesus…JESUS! GodDAMNit all, you lousy BUM!
Harvey sat at the table, feeling the tears pour, feeling his heartbeat race, struggling to breathe. Trembling and sweating, he tried to take sip of ice water, but the water spilled all over his chin and shirtfront and lap.
He scanned the restaurant and caught a woman look at him, then quickly turn away.
She thinks you’re a bum too!
He heard someone say, “gee, glad I’m not him.”
Yeah, and he thinks you’re a bum too!
The father of the boy who called him out quickly gathered his family and rushed them out.
And THEY all think you’re a bum! ALL OF THEM!!!
Harvey Navin sat alone at a corner table of a Chinatown slop house, crying, trembling uncontrollably, covered in ice water, broken. He thought of all he had been through in his short life: all the horror and death and humiliation; all the snickers and titters, like the soundtrack of his life; all the eyes of the world boring in on his broken soul. He saw it all play before his eyes, like a newsreel before the pictures.
And suddenly there was calm.
Suddenly Harvey felt calm and content. Suddenly a wave of tranquility washed over his soul and he went with it. For the first time in his whole goddamn short life Harvey felt confident. Finally happy. Just for a moment, but it was just enough. He managed to place the bead on his mountain of Chop Suey and took a bite, finally at peace now that the war was, at long last, over.