Blast | January 20, 2023

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In Sophie Strohmeier’s story “The Third and Other Harry,” Conrad’s obsession with film and his unusual friendship with his French teacher collide with his parents’ personal failures. The story was a finalist in our 2022 Editors’ Prize contest

 

The Third and Other Harry

Sophie Strohmeier

It was reaching the tail end of Conrad’s The Third Man (1949) phase. Phases and obsessions measured Conrad’s young life the way governing bodies, economic crises, or weather phenomena might rule history. One example was the Italian Horror phase when Conrad was sixteen. Before that, the obsession with the Gormenghast book series when he was fourteen, followed by the music of Brahms and Schubert at fifteen. Now, at seventeen, he had regressed into the movies of the Hollywood studio system, starting first with a precocious leap, via his French teacher, to the French New Wave, then quickly sidling into the literary works of James M. Cain and Graham Greene, and from there to the international collaborations produced by a Hungarian filmmaker named Alexander Korda. All of Conrad’s interests came to an intersection at this movie called The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed in 1949, so when Conrad’s sister announced that her new boyfriend’s name was Harry Leim, pronounced Lime, like the titular character played by Orson Welles, Conrad felt that it was an obvious continuity in the disorganized and fantastical narrative of his life.

It was a Saturday in November just after Conrad’s eighteenth birthday. Conrad and his sister were sitting in the crowded luncheonette off Broadway on 70th Street, muggy with perspiration coming off drenched raincoats, when the sister informed Conrad about Harry Leim. She told Conrad that Harry Leim represented instrumentalists and conductors at her agency and that Harry Leim would be joining their family for Thanksgiving. Being Swiss, Harry Leim did not fully know what, as he put it, “A Thanksgiving” was.

“You can expect him to say something mean about Americans. He does that all the time,” she said.

“Does he say mean things to you?”

“No.” Conrad’s sister punctured the blob-like eggs on her plate with her fork. “But I’ve heard him be mean to others.”

This was the way in Conrad and his sister’s family: mean people. Everyone gravitated toward them. Their father excelled at understated cruelty, and their mother, who was presently divorcing their father, had moved to the spare bedroom next to Conrad’s. There, she wept so loudly at night—emitting an uncomfortable gasping sound that reminded Conrad of the noise he’d heard as a child when his parents were having sex, a noise that had distressed him but also appeased him, as it meant there would be no fighting that night and the next morning, or at least less of it—that Conrad had taken to sleeping on the sofa downstairs, an arrangement that allowed Conrad to stay up late, relentlessly watching the VHS he had brought home from the Video Box. Thanks to his influential family, Conrad worked after-school shifts at the Video Box, alongside a comparative literature and math double-major named Sam Liu, a surly senior at the famous university in Conrad’s hometown. As part of their routine, which included but was not limited to discussions that milked Sam’s vast and weary knowledge, Sam alternated between scowling at Conrad in disbelief or muttering words like weirdo or dummy under his breath, but both these terms were true and warranted, and Conrad adored Sam.

The only nice person in Conrad’s life, apart from his sister, was the French teacher, Mrs. Bridgeman. But recently something had happened between him and Mrs. Bridgeman, something so uncomfortable that Conrad no longer wanted to think of Mrs. Bridgeman at all.

“Harry Lime sounds perfect for Arthur,” Conrad told his sister. “They’ll get along so well.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” said his sister, as if the plan all along had been to please Arthur, who was their father, the leading expert on Husserl, a hard person to please; they could not remember a time in which they had called him anything but Arthur.

“And I thought it would please you as well. Are you still watching The Third Man every other day?”

“Not every other day,” Conrad said. He simply hadn’t the time. “But I’ve thought about it some more, about how you said The Third Man was the lesser Casablanca. You know, I can see why you would think that. But I think you are wrong. Both movies are locked into their specific historical moments. Casablanca is completely fantastical to us; it seems almost effortless, Apollonian, because we can’t go back to it. It ends on that upbeat. That’s why we love it. That’s why it endures. When we were at Casablanca, we could still emerge from this world with a productive sacrifice, as heroes. There had not yet been a Holocaust. Now, The Third Man says that we can’t get what we want. Our heroes are dead; they weren’t even heroes to begin with. The Third Man predicted the message-board troll, the supposed friend who shows up in an AOL chat disguised as someone else. The Third Man knows you really don’t know who your friends are . . .”

***

When Conrad left his town’s metro north station that afternoon, the air smelled of snow. But it was only raining—the kind of rain one forgets is even possible, with uncomfortable bullet-like raindrops that upon impact create their own little fountains, their own tiny wet men with hats. Conrad was glad. It was his time. Summer, endless and miserable, the season of assumptions and requirements, of obligatory unmediated exhilaration, was finally over. Conrad stopped under the awning of the bus station and was pulling his hood over his head when he looked up and made eye contact with the driver of a dirty green Subaru, who, he realized with a sick jolt, was Mrs. Bridgeman. Mrs. Bridgeman had clearly not wanted to see him either. She even made a little wince. Conrad turned and lowered his backpack to switch out his CD for the walk home. The bus stop was a sticky, sweet-smelling place he usually avoided, but pausing there would put some space between himself and Mrs. Bridgeman, meaning she would not see him again at the stoplight.

“Hey, what’s up, girlie-pop?” cried a group of juniors from Conrad’s high school. A return from Manhattan was never easy for Conrad. “Hey, little girl!”

Like everyone else his age in town, the juniors were the offspring of professors at Arthur’s university.

“Wow,” Conrad said and slipped his CD pouch back into his backpack. “Now you got me.”

He had never met people less compelling. And for a while, when Conrad had considered the rest of the world to consist only of his peers and the various vicinities he occupied with them, before his sister had moved to Manhattan, before Mrs. Bridgeman and Sam Liu, Conrad had despaired.

He dashed across the street. Immediately Conrad’s shoes filled with water. It would be a twenty-minute walk from the train station to his house, and Conrad longed for the safety of Mrs. Bridgeman’s Subaru, the faint smell of socks and sunshine stored in its windshield. Mrs. Bridgeman’s was a cluttered little car. Which worked so well for the intentionality of the person who drove it. She might keep bags of books on her backseat and folders with French tests and pouches with pencils. More than once she had called the car her office: “Won’t you step into my office?” she’d say. Conrad liked everything about Mrs. Bridgeman except for the recent thing. But he now felt even worse that, clearly, Mrs. Bridgeman would rather forget about all that as well, that she wanted to forget about Conrad, that the sight of him had made her wince.

The green Subaru pulled up to the curb. Mrs. Bridgeman rolled down the window, squinted her eyes against the rain. “Come on,” she said. “Your stuff will get all wet.”

When he climbed into her passenger seat, pushing aside her purse and placing it by a moist bag of groceries and cat litter in the back, she asked, “What are you listening to?”

Instead of blushing, Conrad managed to say: “Maria Callas’s Lucia, the 1955 recording from Berlin Staatsoper. I have it in surprisingly good quality from that Yahoo Group.”

Mrs. Bridgeman raised her eyebrows.

“The big Callas-DiStefano-Karajan moment,” she said in agreement.

Was it weird that he knew so well this smell of his French teacher’s car? It was. It was weird that it felt like they were friends who had fought, were agreeing to an armistice. It had always been weird. Even Mrs. Bridgeman had said as much once, when she was maneuvering her Subaru out of the Metropolitan Opera parking lot on the night they had gone to see a particularly lengthy production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Conrad was sleepy and felt lit up inside from the music, joyful and private and safe as an irrelevant secret, but sensed Mrs. Bridgeman tense up in the traffic:

“Do your parents ever think it’s strange that you are being taken to the Metropolitan Opera by your middle-aged French teacher?”

At the time, Conrad’s thoughts had paused at Mrs. Bridgeman calling herself middle-aged. He had never guessed at her age at all, which seemed younger than his parents’. She was certainly prettier: an impressively large woman with a long nose and jawline that reminded Conrad of pre-Raphaelite paintings, beautiful but out of scale with the world. As for her question, his parents never seemed to care where he went, especially not if it was a precocious and unusual activity for boys his age.

“So, what’s new?” Mrs. Bridgeman said now. Conrad recognized the familiar enormity of her hands wrapped around the steering wheel, could tell that the curls of her hair were fuzzy from the humidity, and then he fixed his eyes on the red taillights ahead of him.

“Nothing much,” Conrad said, as the biggest change in his life was that he was avoiding Mrs. Bridgeman. “We saw Ariadne last night. My sister has a new boyfriend.”

He added, quickly, because he knew she would get it: “His name is Harry Lime.”

“Like Orson Welles in The Third Man,” Mrs. Bridgeman said, “Do you think she picked him just for you?”

This made Conrad think of something else, and he felt his face grow warm. As the car turned and crept through the rain, he felt pacified, childish, like being lowered into a hot bath. It had been Mrs. Bridgeman who got Conrad into The Third Man to begin with. She had reached into the backseat right there, where a bag of books had sat stacked in cardboard box, the names and titles glowing at Conrad, those self-contained little promises that they were, and pulled out a tattered orange copy of a perfect-bound Penguin paperback, a drawing of Orson Welles on the cover with his pistol cocked.

“Here,” she had said, “I think you’d like this one . . .”

To think that it had been in this very car where the thing with The Third Man had started! The slow progression, at first his hesitancy—hesitancy!—to read the book (he had been finishing something else first), then the exciting pull through it, how quickly it had unspooled in front of him in orderly effortlessness, the testament of Graham Greene’s true and simple virtuosity: Rollo Martins, the character, named “Holly” in the movie because Joseph Cotten had said the name Rollo was “too gay”—too gay! Conrad loved it all for this irony alone—Rollo, the writer of Westerns, with his love for boyish fun, and then, of course, Harry. Harry Lime. Harry was a trickster, a deceiver, who all along could have been both: a hero and a villain. Something in this friendship between Holly and Harry, the depiction of the disappointment, the misguided idealism, had soothed what Conrad hadn’t even known to be amiss. Next, he had felt lured by the movie, excited by its understatement, and over and over, he watched it in the living room downstairs, in the middle of the night with the sound turned so low that often all you could hear was not the soundtrack’s jagged zither tune but the sound of water, gunshots, footsteps running.

Mrs. Bridgeman’s Subaru passed the Video Box, and Conrad looked to see if he could spot, in the back, through the rain, the shadow of Sam Liu, neck bent forward reading his tattered copy of Hoelderlin or Gottfried Benn or whatever. Sam Liu was the one who had given Conrad his first VHS of The Third Man. He had looked away from Conrad as if the sight of Conrad exasperated him and said, “You know, the movie is even better . . .”

Conrad did not ask Mrs. Bridgeman any questions, not like he used to. He waited for her to ask about his mother, but thankfully she did not. Neither did she mention any of the operas on for the remainder of the fall, not the very long Wagner he would be missing due to the end of their friendship or Eugene Onegin, which he knew was her favorite. Then Mrs. Bridgeman dropped Conrad off. For a second, as she parked by the curb outside his house, he was pierced by such panic that she might want to talk to him that he thought he would pee his pants. But she did not say, “We need to talk.” She did not say anything but a pleasant and unbearably kind little “Have a good rest of your weekend, Conny.”

The next Wednesday, the one before Thanksgiving, Conrad logged into fanfiction.net. He noticed that he had received a positive review of his Harry Lime/Holly Martins slash fanfic. The review was surprisingly well worded, and at first Conrad felt a heated sense of connection. Then, with a surge of nausea, Conrad pictured Mrs. Bridgeman writing the review as an apology, which of course she had not because Mrs. Bridgeman did not know how to use the Internet.

For the night before Thanksgiving, the pantry was very empty. This was not unusual in Conrad’s family. He knew that other, happier families went out to get the ingredients for their Thanksgiving dinners as a group activity and decided to broach the need for a visit to the store, but when he found his mother, who was sorting her books into stacks labelled SPIRITUAL and SUBVERSIVE, all she said was, “Go ask your fucking father.”

“We’ll handle it,” Conrad’s sister said on the phone. “Harry and I will pick up the turkey at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. I made the reservation a few days ago. Harry says he has always wanted to get a turkey. Just make sure you get the cranberries before the stores close.”

Conrad asked Arthur to drive him.

“Driving symbolized liberation to me when I was your age,” Arthur said as he started the car and backed out of the driveway. “Your lack of initiative in getting your license really unsettles me. But you know what? I’m not going to comment on it at all. I am just telling you what I see.”

“I don’t like cars,” Conrad said, not because it was true but because it was the only thing that came to mind.

“You don’t know what that means, not liking cars.” Arthur said, “And think about it. You are being untruthful. You do not know the experience of driving a car. Why deny yourself what you fetishize in movies all the time? Half the movies you watch take place in a car. Cars are the ultimate aphrodisiac, and judging by the movies you watch, they serve as an aphrodisiac for you. You are just too repressed to tell.”

All the cranberries were gone. Checking behind the jars of peas and carrots, Conrad found two dented cans of preprocessed cranberry sauce with added sugar. They were by a brand Conrad’s sister would never use, but Conrad and Arthur took them to the cash register anyway, all the while making eye contact and snickering, knowing how Conrad’s sister would object.

“So,” said Arthur, in an improved mood since he and Conrad had established their conspiracy against Conrad’s sister, “now that your mother has taken Mrs. Bridgeman as her lover, do you feel differently toward her?”

“I feel fine toward her,” Conrad said.

“I admit I could have been better,” Arthur said. “I admit I made some mistakes. I really grieve that.”

Conrad couldn’t possibly fathom what Arthur meant when he said, “some mistakes.” Conrad was the one who had made the mistake of befriending Mrs. Bridgeman. He thought of his blind trust, like Holly Martins toward Harry Lime. He decided that like the adults he needed an ulterior motive. But what could his ulterior motive be? Perhaps his was the enabling of Thanksgiving dinner for the imminent meeting with Harry Leim, even though the mere thought of the following day—on which Conrad’s sister would be bringing a part of her life into the house, a part of her life that was not unlike everything to do with his parents’ lives, since Conrad knew, as much as he hated to think about it, that she and Harry Leim were having sex—filled Conrad with dread and boredom.

***

Conrad worked the evening shift at the Video Box. As usual, Sam Liu was there as well.

“Aren’t you going home for Thanksgiving?” Conrad asked. Sam adjusted his glasses and looked at Conrad. “I’m not flying across the country to eat a fucking turkey,” he said. He went back to Gottfried Benn.

“Can’t blame you,” said Conrad. “Thanksgiving is going to be weird at my house. My parents are getting a divorce and my sister is bringing her new boyfriend, who is, like, thirty-five years old.”

Sam glanced up and gave Conrad a look filled with both impatience and what might have been pity. Conrad swallowed and finished the next sentence quickly before Sam could go back to Gottfried Benn: “His name is Harry Lime. Crazy, huh?”

Sam hesitated for a second and grinned, sort of. “Harry Lime, for real?”

“It’s spelled L-E-I-M, not L-I-M-E, but they’re pronounced the same way. Pretty good, right?”

“Really weird. Who knew?”

Sam immediately turned back to his book and exhaled loudly. His mouth twitched. Conrad wondered if Sam was reading at all.

“Well,” Sam said and for the first time in his life initiated conversation with Conrad, “if the shit hits the fan, you can always come here. Put on one of those David Lean movies you love so much.”

“Thanks,” Conrad said.

“No problem.” Sam didn’t look up. “It’s not like I will be here.”

***

Conrad had often fantasized about meeting a character from a book or movie he loved, but in those fantasies, he entered the fabric of the story and participated in the plot. Sometimes he fantasized about his favorite characters hanging around him, like spirits, protecting him, wishing him well. These used to be characters from novels, but now they were in black and white: there was William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard and of course Rita Hayworth as Gilda and Rick from Casablanca and even Trevor Howard in The Third Man, all quipping gently at him, saying things like, “It wasn’t the German gin,” which Conrad thought a great line, though he did not truly understand what it meant. But now here was Harry Lime moving around his own kitchen, opening the oven, poking at the turkey with amused and appreciative little grunts. Conrad felt that it was actually him, Harry Leim himself, not just a stranger named Harry Lime. Harry (pronounced HAH-ree, with the r rolled at the back of the throat) had the same jolly deep laugh, the dimpled moon-face. At thirty-five, he was already balding, and his large pale forehead shone in the kitchen light. Unlike Orson Welles’s, Harry’s words lilted with a funny German, making him sound even more like an actor than Orson Welles did. This Harry would whisper things at Conrad’s sister, and then Conrad’s sister would laugh, and Harry would purr and say things like, “Good, something, something.”

Conrad tried not to lurk but instead rifled through his VHS and DVDs, looking for something suitable to suggest for after dinner. Through the kitchen door, he could hear his sister tell the story of their mother and Mrs. Bridgeman. How was it she had waited so long to tell Harry?

“That reminds me so much of that fable, the story about the scorpion and the toad,” Harry’s voice boomed in response, and Conrad shivered. Orson Welles mentioned the scorpion and the toad in his film Mr. Arkadin (1955), the transparent plastic VHS cover of which Conrad’s fingertips were grazing just now. He had never thought of the fable as applicable to what had happened between his mother and Mrs. Bridgeman, never wondered which one was the scorpion and which the toad, but the analogy rang true: whatever they were pursuing in each other and themselves seemed misplaced, even deadly, or at least incredibly dumb.

Rain had started to fall around noon, and with the sky so dark outside, the kitchen glowed as comfortingly as a home in a children’s book. Conrad’s sister and Harry were drinking, both wearing Arthur’s dark blue ceramics aprons. Harry had just finished telling the story of the scorpion and the toad, with both creatures sinking to the bottom of the lake because the scorpion could not change his nature. Harry looked large and chubby and very handsome, his almond eyes moist with laughter, and he paused when Conrad came in.

“Conrad, is it?” he said, stretching out his hand to be shaken, the r gurgling at the back of his throat. “The audacity parents have . . .”

He handed Conrad a fragile cocktail glass with a lilac-colored liquid inside, candied violet petals inexplicably bobbing on its surface, “try this little gin cocktail I’ve composed, yes? It’s not too strong. A little dessert before this enormous turkey.”

Over by the pot of gravy, Conrad’s sister was sighing so loudly and melodically that she might have been singing, and she dabbed at her eyes with the back of her wrist. It occurred to Conrad that she seemed not just happy but ridiculous.

“Conrad,” said Harry, “you know we were talking about American cars. So much larger than anywhere else. Really, it is like driving a spaceship. So fun.”

***

They piled a drumstick with string beans and mashed potatoes on one plate for Conrad’s mother and made another plate of just stuffing and potatoes with cranberries for Arthur, who was a picky eater. The plates remained untouched in the oven for the rest of the afternoon, while Conrad, his sister, and Harry ate at the kitchen table. Harry ate copiously, spoke with his mouth full, laughed and nodded at everything Conrad or his sister said, which Conrad appreciated. Gradually, Harry spoke with a stronger American accent, as if he was only just picking up speed. Once, he referred to Switzerland, acerbically, as “the land of cuckoo clocks,” and Conrad and his sister made wide-eyed eye contact.

Outside, the rain fell. Inside, it was quiet. Conrad went back upstairs and sat down in front of the computer. He thought of the letter aria in Eugene Onegin, of the girl, Tatiana, who has just met the man she loves and how she writes to him, despite knowing it is a terrible idea, one act that can never be undone, writes to him that she loves him, though she knows that she will ultimately be destroyed, the same way the characters from The Third Man knew Harry Lime was their destruction. Would Conrad write such a letter someday? Would he write such a letter now? He turned on the computer, lined up the Eugene Onegin letter aria on his Winamp (Nuccia Focile, 1994) and discovered another review of his Third Man fanfiction. “Scratches an itch I didn’t know I had,” it said. Conrad sat in disbelief. His Third Man obsession had not been well received online, where he had spoken so exhaustively about the movie that his AOL friends had stopped greeting him when he logged on.

Conrad opened Word. He made up a scene where Holly and Harry play a game of chess over cocktails, set the genre to “Angst,” and started writing. At some point, to make the story less “fluffy,” as the Internet called it, Harry would have to cheat at chess, and Conrad did not yet know how he would do that. It was easy to describe bad things and hard to describe good things, Conrad reminded himself.

***

That night, after the movie, after he had fallen asleep in a blanket on the couch and slept for a while, Conrad got up again and tiptoed to the kitchen. There was a glow coming from under the kitchen door, and when Conrad came in, Harry, his face as full and familiar as the moon, lit by the refrigerator’s cool light, was sitting in the dark blue dark, scraping icing off his cake and onto his plate. When he saw Conrad, Harry removed the cake from the fridge, turned on the light above the sink, and cut Conrad a slice.

“I love these American cakes,” Harry said. And without pausing, he added, “You know, my mother ran away with my oboe teacher.”

Conrad froze, and it took him a moment to understand why Harry might be telling him this.

“A man, but that doesn’t make a difference. She even married him. We would go on to live together, the three of us, you know. Before all of it, my oboe teacher had been my hero; he would take me on hikes and trips to the theater, and I felt special about him, special because I admired him and thought he admired me, and then I realized he was just after my mother. I was never able to shake that I had been a fool.”

Conrad accepted the cake from Harry on one of the floral-patterned plates his father had brought from Prague, most of which had already broken from being flung around the kitchen. Conrad cut off a bite with the side of his fork.

“So I can only imagine,” Harry continued, “what you must be going through right now.”

Conrad chewed on the cake. He saw that the refrigerator was still open and pushed it shut.

“Where are they now, your mother and stepfather?”

“Ohh,” sighed Harry. “In Zurich.”

“What’s that like?”

“As a boy I did not like it,” said Harry. “But now I remember the lakes, the swans. Up close, they are filthy, angry, enormous birds. But from far away, they are serene. They spin circles in the water, this water that stretches so far, to a hazy shore on the other side. The mountains are more like clouds there. And when I close my eyes, you know, all I see is a peaceful night in June or July when the air is warm, the lights from the city shimmering. Out in the water, out there as these puffy spots of white on the black lake, the swans are drifting.”

Conrad divided the three layers of cake on his plate and ate each layer individually. At the end, he ate the icing, scraped it away until he saw the tiny rosebuds emerge on the porcelain, and then he got up and washed the plate.

***

Photo © Justin Kwok

Sophie Strohmeier is a bilingual writer and translator from Vienna, Austria. A Lambda Literary Fellow with an MFA in fiction from the University of Alabama, Sophie is the author of the surrealist lesbian novel Küss Mich, Libussa (edition a, 2013, in German). She lives in New York City.

 

 

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