Literary Orphans

The Cognomen Affair by Samuel Cole

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Janet loved Harvey more than she loved herself. She’d always been an ancillary character. Someone else’s support system. Calm softness to Harvey’s chaotic vibrations. During their honeymoon, she was glad he bought a crimson-colored sweatshirt from the Harvard University bookstore. The cashier gave him forty-percent off because of his radio voice, which she said made her happy.

“I’ll take care of it for you,” Janet said.

“Don’t wear it,” Harvey replied. “It’s mine.”

Janet washed it with Tide and dried it with Bounce. It faded: crimson to crayon red to weathered brick to fading flame to cinnamon toast crunch to a sad sort of pink that makes pink sort of sad. Similar to Janet’s parents and siblings, time moved ahead faster than she could keep up. Had anyone asked if she took enjoyment in reflection, she’d have said yes. Looking back brought her closer to the future. Harvey talked a lot on the radio about good ole days. He didn’t make many good ole days with her at home. Perhaps he considered their life bad, bad ole days. Early on, during dinner, she asked if he was happy. He never answered, squinting at her as if she’d asked him to pass the potato salad, the one thing that wasn’t on the table.

During the crayon red years, they bought an A-frame stucco house with a crimson-colored mailbox. Harvey wore the sweatshirt to Sipp’s Country Club, Golf USA, sporting events, and to Doctor Hoeffel’s office, places where opinions mattered. To wear Harvard was to have attended Harvard. Which was a lie. But Harvey was a showman. And Janet accepted his ostentatiousness.

“Never knew you were a Crimson man,” Doctor Hoeffel said, pointing to an x-ray scan of Harvey’s persistent laryngitis. “Figured you more of an Institute of Technology guy or Emerson.”

Harvey shrugged. His response in lieu of telling the truth.

“You must be an early eighties grad?”

He shrugged. Janet sighed. He hadn’t attend any college. But he was still the main reason she got up in the morning. Was she the main reason he got up in the morning? Did he love her with as much as he loved the sweatshirt? Someday, she thought, he’ll tell me.

During the weathered brick years, they moved across town and into a two-story home. Harvey, much like the washing machine, spun fast and frequent, wearing everything and everyone thin. Janet reflected on their slow, consistent life, glad that at least her childhood dream of having a two-story house had come true. “Call me Harv,” Harvey told her during dinner. “Harvey sounds like a dad’s name.” Which he was becoming. Like or not.

“I love the name Harvey.”

“Well, I don’t.”

Harv was an absent father. Which might have bothered another woman. But not Janet. She knew who they were. And weren’t.

Their children, Haley and Harv Jr., hated hearing Harv talk about the sweatshirt and watching Janet wash and dry it. They stayed overnight with friends, coming home only to gather coins, clothes, and comestibles. Harv extended his radio show from 5am and 8am in 239 cities to 5am to 9am in 281 cities in North America while Janet learned how to cook Salt-Crusted Fish and Macarons. Harv smoked Cuban cigars that stunk up the house and yellowed his teeth while Janet sat in the kitchen and shuffled through photographs, relieved she’d taken so many pictures of the kids when they were little.

During the fading flame years, Janet talked Harv into buying Kenmore laundry appliances. She giggled like a little girl cutting the red ribbons. Haley missed another Christmas, skiing in Colorado with Connor Barwin from Missoula, MT. Harv Jr. also missed Christmas, but at least he phoned on Janet’s birthday in March. Harv’s laryngitis forced him into early retirement. Even in the summer, he napped like a cat in front of the fireplace. His mother, Delores, two months before she died of lung cancer, came for Thanksgiving. She told Harv to please not wear the sweatshirt at the table. He disobeyed, and then wore it to her funeral, burial, and reception.

During the cinnamon toast crunch years, Harv played computer games all day. And night. Janet and Haley picked out Vera Wang plates, champagne flutes, and the perfect first-dance song for Haley and Landon Prescott’s wedding in October: Fools In Love. Harv Jr. joined the Peace Corps and went to Rawanda where he couldn’t be bothered with American nonsense like weddings, champagne flutes, and tuxedos. Harv agreed, walking Haley down the aisle in the sweatshirt. Haley begged him not to wear it. But he did. She cried but eventually got over it.

During the sad sort of pink years, Harv wore the sweatshirt twenty-four seven. His forgetfulness worsened, as did Janet’s quietness, leaving them both with even less to share. Haley became pregnant and miscarried while Harv Jr. doled out HIV medication in Liberia. Haley got pregnant again and gave birth to a baby boy named Stanford Graham Prescott while Harv Jr. backpacked the Orient with some Korean fellow named Leo. Stanford spent many weekends at Janet and Harv’s house. “Gramp’s sweatshirt is super vintage,” he said. “I hope he gives it to me when he’s finished with it.” Haley and Landon got divorced in January while Harv. Jr. married Spencer Holmes, a democratic political strategist from Des Moines, Iowa in June. Janet and Harv Sr. weren’t invited to the wedding. Harv Sr. hated Spencer who went to Yale and called Harvard an overrated institution for louts. Still, Harv Jr. phoned Janet every Tuesday evening at 7pm to say hi. Haley eloped to Jamaica with some James Baldwin from work and phoned every Tuesday evening at 7: 10pm to say hi. After Janet talked to her children, she pressed the phone against Harv’s lips and asked him to say hi. He never did.

“We should go back to Harvard,” she said at bedtime. “Tour it again and get you a new sweatshirt.”

“This one’s perfect.”

“But a new one would smell so fresh and feel so good.”

“You can’t replace a classic.”

“I’m not asking you to replace it.”

“Than what are you asking for?”

“For you, Harvey. I’m asking for you.”

He shrugged, removed the sweatshirt, and fell asleep.

Harvey James Stout Sr. was buried in a black suit. Janet gave the sweatshirt to Stanford who tore it up into tessellate parts and sewed a quilt to honor of his mother’s death to breast cancer and Uncle Harv’s death to AIDS.

Janet lived for many years, reflecting on each one as it passed. Stanford grew tall and kind and one night during college, at Harvard, fell asleep at the wheel and died in the hospital three days later. Janet died on Christmas Eve. Finally surrounded by those she loved.

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Samuel Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event management. He is a poet, flash fiction geek, and essayist enthusiast. His fiction/poetry has appeared in many literary magazines. He is also a prize-winning card maker & scrapbooker.

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–Art by Kaia Pietersu