T.R. Healy

Posted on April 24, 2017

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Heart-Shaped Hour

 

“Did you see it?” Holt asked his sister as soon as she answered the telephone.

“See what?”

“Warren’s picture in the Telegraph.”

“No,” Meg said, surprised. “What’s his picture doing in the paper?”

“Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the fire.”

“No.”

“I know it’s hard to believe thirty years have passed.”

“It can’t be. No way.”

He chuckled. “Believe me, it is.”

“It’s a shame he’s not around to see it.”

 
After he hung up the receiver, Holt took another swallow of coffee and looked again at the picture of his uncle in the Metro section of the morning paper. His back was to the camera but everyone in the family was familiar with the floppy golf hat he wore year round to protect his bald head. Also familiar was the apricot-sized field watch on his right wrist. It was the picture published in the paper thirty years ago after he rescued several tenants from a burning apartment building near the waterfront. He seldom spoke about the incident other than to say he would never have been involved if he wasn’t driving home early that night from a poker game in which he lost all the money he brought to play.

“If I’d been winning, I would’ve still been at the table when the fire broke out and never would have saved a soul,” he admitted whenever the rescue was mentioned by someone.

In the picture a tow-headed boy who looked about three years old was cradled in his arms. The boy, whose hands were wrapped around Warren’s shoulders, stared directly at whoever took the picture. His eyes were stark as bruises they were opened so widely, and Holt assumed the youngster was probably as confused as he was afraid.

From what he learned later his uncle helped lead seven people out of the burning building but this boy was the only survivor whose picture was printed in the newspaper. A frail man with a persistent cough from all the cigarettes he smoked, he was more surprised than anyone that he rescued the boy and the other tenants. And despite his reluctance to talk about his feat, he admitted to Holt a few years ago that it was without question his proudest achievement.

“My special hour,” he said, wrinkling his forehead, as if still not believing he did what he did.

Pensively Holt stared at the boy in the picture, thinking how grateful he must have been for the help he received. He wondered what he might have said to Warren at the time if he were a little older, wondered what he might say now that his uncle was gone. The longer he stared the more curious he became about the person in his uncle’s arms.

*

Later that day, after he got home from work, Holt called his sister again which was unusual because they seldom spoke more than a couple of times a week. “It’s me again, Meg.”

“So it is,” she said, surprised to hear from him twice in one day. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s about that picture of Warren in the paper.”

“What about it?”

“Do you know what became of that boy he saved?”

“No. Why would I?”

“I thought maybe Warren said something to you about him.”

“As far as I know, he never set eyes on him after that night.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Well, no, I’m not absolutely sure, Holt, but I don’t recall Warren ever speaking about him or any of the others he rescued. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious is all.”

“Why? What do you care about someone you never met?”

“I just thought he might be interested to know that Warren passed away recently.”

“Do you really think he’d care? That fire was so long ago.”

“Oh, I don’t know. He might. I’d care if it were me.”

“Oh, Holt,” she sighed in exasperation. “Sometimes you get the craziest notions.”

“It was just something that crossed my mind.”

“Well, if you’re so inclined, you should let him know.”

“I wouldn’t know where to find him.”

“Neither would I,” she replied, just before she hung up to answer a knock at the back door.

*

Still curious about the boy in the picture, Holt called the Telegraph the following day and asked the editor of the Metro section if he received any inquiries about the people in the picture.

“A few. Why do you ask?”

Quickly he told him that the man in the picture was his uncle, and he wondered if any of the people who contacted him might know how he could get in touch with the boy who now must be in his early thirties.

“Why do you want to know?”

He really didn’t have a satisfactory answer so he said, “I thought he might like to know a little about my uncle who passed away nine weeks ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” the editor replied. “Well, let me see what I can find out and I’ll get back to you before the end of the day.”

“I appreciate that.”

As he said he would, the editor called back around half past four. “We did receive a message from a cousin of the youngster in the photograph. I’m not at liberty to give you her email address but I can give you her name if that’ll help.”

“Yes, sir, it will.”

“It is Harriet Pheiffer.”

“Thank you again.”

*

He found five Pheiffers in the telephone directory, none of which were Harriet, but figuring she might be married and the number was listed under her husband’s name, he decided to call all of them. The third number he rang was answered by Harriet who sounded half asleep her voice was so thin and whispery. Promptly he identified himself as Warren’s nephew and explained the purpose of his call.

“So you’d like to speak with Scott, would you?”

“If that’s your cousin’s name.”

“Well, I don’t have any other relative of mine who got his picture in the paper,” she said gruffly.

“Yes. I would like to speak with him.”

She snickered. “That’s going to be difficult, mister.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I don’t know where the hell he is. That’s why I got in touch with the paper because I thought maybe they knew where he was.”

“You have no idea at all?”

“None,” she sighed. “You see, he’s written a boat load of bad checks over the years and has spent plenty of time behind bars because of it. Three months ago, he was due in court again to face charges on more bad checks he wrote to me and a lot of other folks and he never showed up. I assume he skipped town which he’s done in the past.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not half as sorry as I am,” she groaned. “Scott’s had a pretty troubled life, I’m afraid, raised by parents who didn’t have any business having a child.”

Holt, not knowing what to say, kept quiet.

“I know this sounds horrible, mister, but a lot of people, including yours truly, would have been a lot better off if your uncle hadn’t rescued Scott from that fire.”

Still silent, Holt listened to the woman’s list of grievances against her cousin for a few more minutes then, lying, said he was late for a meeting and hung up the phone. He was in his den, seated at his desk, with the picture of the rescue spread in front of him. Repeatedly he tapped a fingernail against a corner of the desk, wishing now he had never spoken with the bitter woman. But despite what she told him about her cousin, he was convinced his uncle did the correct thing and only hoped he would respond as he did if faced with such a challenge.

****

T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as Gravel, Hawaii Review, Steel Toe Review, and Welter.

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