“Harry & Sally vs. New York”
NOTE: If you’d like to HEAR this story – complete with sound effects! – you can do so via Milwaukee Public Radio (start at the 22-minute mark).
During the summer of ’89, I dated an attorney named . . . well, let’s call her “Claire.” We had a fair amount in common; we liked each other, were attracted to each other, had engaging conversations . . . and yet, it wasn’t quite right. Something just wasn’t matching up. She was several years my senior, but that wasn’t the problem. No, it wasn’t that Claire was too old; it was that she was too . . . normal.
Still, there was enough that was working that I told myself to ease up and give it a shot.
One night, we went to the local cineplex to see When Harry Met Sally. We both enjoyed the film; we both laughed a lot . . . though I noticed we were laughing at different parts. It wasn’t that she was laughing at the “female” parts, and I at the “male” parts; no, it wasn’t nearly that clear-cut. During the famous fake-orgasm-in-the-restaurant scene, Claire nearly chortled herself into unconsciousness . . . while I couldn’t get past the implausibility of Sally’s behavior, given how guarded and borderline-uptight her character had been up to that point. I, on the other hand, snickered uncontrollably throughout the “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” department-store karaoke-machine sequence. Come to think of it, I seemed to be the only one in the theater doing so.
Still, as I said before, Claire and I both enjoyed the movie. So, I told myself as we watched, that’s a good sign—right?
Anyway, as the end credits began to roll, we rose and stepped out into the lobby. There, on the wall in front of us, was the framed promotional poster for the film. It depicted Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan chatting with one another while absolutely towering over a tiny, ankle- high rendition of the Manhattan skyline. I placed an arm around Claire’s waist and, just to make conversation, gestured toward the poster with my free hand. “Can you imagine how different the movie would have been if the two of them had actually been that size?”
Claire just looked at me.
So, I went on: “Y’know, there they’d be, standing around, having their neurotic little conversation about relationships . . . but every time Harry shifted his stance, or Sally tapped her toe, a hundred people would be instantly crushed. Pretty soon, you’d hear little sirens. The mayor would have to call in the National Guard; a ballistic missile strike might even be ordered . . .”
Claire shook her head. “No one would ever make a movie like that.”
I shrugged. “I would.”
She looked away. “O—kay.”
I glanced back over my shoulder, into the cinema we’d just exited, and caught a glimpse of the screen. The end credits were still scrolling. But clearly, they’d be over very soon.
For nearly a century, a large, bronze drinking fountain had stood in the heart of Willow Grove Park—a fountain fashioned in the shape of a roaring, life-size lion, and long known to the town’s residents as “Willy.”
Willy was in excellent condition; the only clue to his age lay in the turquoise patina of his splendid mane. Muscles bulged from Willy’s back and along his legs; each paw was the size of a child’s head, and saber-like claws jutted sharply from all twenty toes. Every part of him had been sculpted with an elegant mastery that testified to his vitality and strength.
But perhaps it was Willy’s facial expression that so endeared him to others. He seemed both bemused and a little sad about being reduced from King of the Jungle to a humble kiddie attraction—literally, a “water bringer” for pants-wetters and players of peewee soccer. One could imagine him telling his creator, “Okay, okay; I’ll do it for the kids. Just, please, give me some dignity.”
Which the artist did—deftly. The old lion appeared generous, yet austere. “Drink from me,” his expression seemed to say. “But don’t you cross me.”
Obtaining water from the faucet entailed sticking one’s head deep inside Willy’s mouth. Children routinely made a number of false starts before they finally succeeded. The little ones thrilled from afar at the idea of drinking from Willy, but they grew terrified as they approached his open jaws with their rows of giant, jagged teeth. Drinking from Willy was therefore something of a milestone, even a rite of passage, for the kids of Willow Grove. Mothers would proudly announce to their friends that little Johnny or Jenny had taken their “first drink from Willy!”—at which point the children in question would be congratulated for their maturity.
It seemed that Olivia Brenner, age five, was going to require more tries than most. As she walked to the park with her parents one hot summer day, she geared up for another attempt:
“Mommy?” The girl raised her voice so that her mother could hear, for Amanda Brenner was walking a few feet ahead of her husband and daughter. “Can I drink from Willy today?”
“Yes.” Amanda, reed-thin and ever in motion, did not slow down, nor even turn to her daughter, but kept charging forward at a brisk, steady pace. “I think it’s time for you to push through your fears. Don’t you?”
Olivia did not fully understand her mother’s meaning, but she decided to agree anyway. She dropped her father’s somewhat pudgy hand and ran toward Amanda. “Yes!” Olivia yelled to the back of her head.
“Then, it’s settled.” Amanda glanced back at her husband. “Right, Lamont?”
“Well, sure, as long as . . .”
Amanda interrupted: “Oh, Olivia!” Clearly vexed, she halted, hands on her bony hips.
Lamont and Olivia stopped at once.
“You have peanut butter all over your face!” Amanda knelt on the pavement and began digging around in her purse. She cast a scowl at her husband. “How did you let her get so dirty?”
“I didn’t really notice,” Lamont confessed. “I guess I was . . . uh, sightseeing.”
“‘Sightseeing,’” repeated his spouse with a sneer. “Ahhh: le mot juste.”
Lamont, reddening, looked away.
Olivia had no idea what her mother had just said, so she changed the topic. “Peanut butter’s not okay,” she offered in an effort to please her mother.
“You’re wrong.” Amanda pulled a Wet-Nap from her purse and began to scrub and scrub at Olivia’s mouth. “Actually, peanut butter is very nutritious. It’s a healthy fat.” Amanda paused briefly, allowing the weight of her words to sink in. Then she silently resumed cleaning Olivia’s face, squeezing and mashing her daughter’s small features under the pressure of her palm.
Minutes later, they arrived at the park and headed straight for Willy.
“Oh, boy!” enthused Olivia as the distant lion came into view. “Oh boy oh boy oh boy!”
The grin remained on Olivia’s face, and the sparkle lingered in her eyes, as the trio drew closer, ever closer to the drinking fountain. Finally, she skipped up ahead and stopped just in front of it.
The girl’s sweating parents exchanged a look, for their daughter had never gotten this close to Willy before. Amanda pulled a cigarette and a lighter out of her purse. “G’ahead, Liv,” she muttered, lighting up. “Have a drink.”
“Okay.” But it wasn’t okay—not any more; not from up close. From this vantage point, the wide-open, roaring mouth looked somehow different. Bigger; darker. Deeper. Like a great, toothy cave . . . a tunnel of no return.
And it occurred to Olivia, not for the first time: This is why people say scary things give them the Willys.
Her father read the look on her face. “It’s all right, honey. It’s only a statue—a statue with some nice, cold water inside, just for you. You’re thirsty, aren’t you?”
Olivia shook her head. Though she was, of course, parched.
Amanda flicked her ash to the ground. “Oh, for Christ’s sake; enough of this foolishness.” She waved her Salem toward Willy. “Do it.”
Olivia bit her lip.
“Sweetheart.” Lamont moved right up beside his daughter; kneeling down, he placed an arm around her. “Willy can’t hurt you. He isn’t real.”
Olivia reached out, tentatively, and touched the lion with one fingertip. “He feels real.”
“Well, you’re right: he is real . . .”
With a gasp, the girl stepped back.
Amanda rolled her yes. “Now you’ve done it.”
“He is real,” Lamont repeated, “but he’s not a real lion: he’s a statue—and he isn’t going to eat you! I promise, Livvie: Willy has never eaten any kid, ever.”
Olivia did not give voice to her next thought: Maybe he will today. Nana always says, “There’s a first time for everything.”
Amanda took a last, deep drag, then tossed the butt to the ground and marched right past her daughter to the drinking fountain. “Watch.” She bent over, plunged her head into Willy’s mouth, turned the knob, and began to drink.
The girl’s heart pounded . . . and then, Olivia thought she saw Willy’s shoulder muscles twitch . . .
She awoke, as always, shivering and alone.
Opened her eyes to darkness. Morning, or still night? No way to tell; she was too far down. “Daybreak,” she mumbled . . . but it was just a hunch.
She lay on her side, knees raised, chin pressed to her breastbone, hands clamped between her legs, and listened to her teeth tick out a staccato beat. Her hooded skintite had kept her warm for a while, but then the heat from her resting vehicle had faded as she’d slept there beside it, the temperature in the tunnel dropping lower, ever lower. Still, it beat conditions on the surface: the shrieking night winds would have flayed her alive. She was far safer holed up here, deep down.
Safer, to be certain . . . but still, she thought, half-frozen. “Yeah,” she yawned, rubbing at her eyes. Sleeping on ice will do that.
Struggling to her feet, she slipped; her hand shot out and steadied her against the vehicle’s side. “Power,” she said, and as the engine hummed to life, the cylindrical space around her flooded with light. Through the steam of her own breathing she gave the glimmering ice tunnel a cursory glance, then let her eyes fall on the vehicle: a kind of oversized litemetal bullet, gleaming and silverblue, little longer than she was tall and with room inside—barely—for one. More than just her ride, this was her shelter and her sanctuary, her source of heat and light. This was her lifeline; this was her home. This . . . this “vehicle” . . . for she knew not what to call it, had no inkling of its name.
Nor, for that matter, of her own. So much she didn’t know . . .
“Open,” she said, and the grayglass lid slid back into the chassis. She climbed in and sat down, thus resurrecting the old, familiar aches: mild for now, but sure to worsen through the day. She reached out to the tunnel wall, found the nearest icicle; she broke off the tip and slid it into her mouth. As the shard melted, she felt between her feet for her satchel. She took out a vial, and from the vial a blue tablet; she popped it in and swallowed it. Hardly the most filling of meals, but she’d run out of foodsticks two days back. Empty energy was better than none.
“Close,” she said, and the tinted lid slid forward. “Heat,” she instructed, and at once felt her feet, then calves, then thighs begin to thaw. “Restraint,” she continued, and her safety harness clicked into place. “Reverse”—and, with a low-pitched drone, the vehicle began backing out of the tunnel. Nudged toward the windshield, she gazed out, watched her none-too-hospitable sleepspace receding forever from sight.
As her vehicle withdrew, she steeled herself for the view, fully aware that she was trading an ice womb for an ice world. She emerged onto the surface amidst monolithic glaciers jutting jagged and high into the slate- gray sky. Below them, a barren powderplain stretched out far beyond her
sight—a snow-sea of ancient white waves, frozen in place. The screaming winds raged, having their way with the tundra: carving new caves, conjuring new crests and ridges, revamping the treacherous topography right before her eyes.
And there, to the east, straggling into view like a cold and distant moon: the sun. Already, at this early hour, it looked utterly defeated.
What was this place? Had she been transported to some far-flung and frigid alien planet? Or was this her own world, her homeworld, gone terribly wrong? For that matter—she frowned, looked down—what was her homeworld? This memory, like so many, was gone. She could neither name nor describe her planet, her nation, her tribe . . . though she knew, vaguely, that such things existed, and that these were things she should recall. No, she hadn’t a clue where she was from. But one thing she did know: that place, her place, was not like this.
Snow was accumulating on the windshield, blotting out the view.
She loosened her hood, pulled it off her head; she closed her eyes and tried to picture the land from which she’d come. There were other colors, different colors, there; of that, she was sure. Not just snow-white and ice-blue and sky-gray, and not the brown of her hair, either, but . . . something else. That lush and lively color she’d seen in an ice-reflection of her eyes—what was it called? She’d found it nowhere here but in her own mirror image. Yet back in her world . . .
Her head began to pound; the effort to remember never failed to take its toll. Eyes batting open, she took a deep breath, tried to shake it off: the pain abated but didn’t depart. “Fine,” she muttered, and returned her attention to the now half-hidden vista before her: the snow-throwing winds, the sheer mountains of ice, the bleak and endless whitescape. Perhaps an answer lay out there; perhaps not. But at least it was a new day.
“Forward,” she said, “four-zero”—and the vehicle smoothly advanced, shrugging off its coat of snow. Four-zero, she’d found, was the optimal speed in conditions like these. Four-zero allowed her to cover a fair amount of ground, yet still afforded a full, clear view as she scanned left and right, near and far, from the bumpy patch just ahead to the most distant glacier. What was she looking for? She was looking, as always, for something different, something that stuck out . . . for anything other than ice and snow. She was looking for some small movement that, for once, didn’t derive from the wailing winds. She was looking for a meal, for some kind of solid food. She was looking for tracks other than her own, for evidence of life . . . of people, perhaps, like herself. She was looking for warmth, for welcome.
She was looking for the color in her eyes . . .