Marie Smysor Watson
The Incredible Disappearing Woman
“There goes The Incredible Disappearing Woman,” Harvey says to Jane from his wallowed-out spot in the recliner.
“At least somebody is doing something to improve themselves,” Jane says, pursing her lips as she folds a pair of his XXL underwear. She is at the dining room table with the warm laundry that Harvey can smell even from his chair. Gentle Breeze is the name of the fabric softener and it tickles Harvey’s nostrils with its pleasant, chemical-y smell.
“You know I have bad knees Jane,” Harvey says, a little hurt. His wife continues to fold the laundry silently, her mouth pressing into a thin line.
And Harvey does have bad knees – well, not really bad, not to the point where he needs knee replacements or anything, but his doctor did say that he had the beginnings of osteoarthritis and that he should be taking glucose-something to improve his joint health. He tells Jane this, after the appointment, when she asks him.
What Harvey didn’t tell Jane, though, was that Dr. Neill also said that he should definitely try losing fifty pounds (Hell, even twenty would be a big, fat improvement, Harv! Dr. Neill said, laughing and slapping him on the back as he wrapped up the appointment in less than ten minutes). Harvey kept this little tidbit from her – Jane doesn’t need to know everything. It is already galling enough to him that she will no longer have sex with him in the missionary position, saying that she can’t breathe when he lays on top of her. Instead, she climbs on top and rides him, leaving him flat on his back like a bewildered old horse, barely participating in the action.
This woman outside of his window – Harvey doesn’t know her name, but she has been walking steadily, every day for the past six months, give or take. When she first started walking, she was fat (not just plump like a middle-aged housewife, or big-boned, like Harvey himself). No, she was fat. Obese, maybe even morbidly obese, like the Before pictures of the women that often grace the covers of Jane’s ladies’ rags. Look at me! I lost 22 dress sizes in 12 weeks! they boast, or something as equally unbelievable. Yes, this woman who walked everyday on the street in front of his house – never on the sidewalk – she was really, really fat when she started in early March. So fat that Harvey could almost hear her huffing, even through the double-paned glass of the bay window that looked out onto the street. She jiggled as she walked, the motion setting off a chain reaction all around her body that couldn’t be ignored. She would sweat too; it rolled off of her forehead like the rain that spilled over the gutters when Harvey forgot to clean them out in the fall (lately, he’d been paying a handyman to do it, because now he exceeded the weight limit on his own ladder). She walked slowly, almost painfully, shuffling her way down the street. She entered the house with the bright green shutters, six doors down and across the street from Harvey’s, that had been for sale for a long while until the Incredible Disappearing Woman and her husband - or man-friend - bought it this past February, moving in during a snowstorm. He sometimes saw him, the man, outside fixing up the landscaping or fiddling with this or that on the front of the house but he never saw her unless she was walking. Maybe she’s embarrassed, Harvey thought, ashamed because she was truly a whale of woman, all blubber and soft, blurred lines.
But now, now she was anything but fat. She had slimmed down quickly – too quickly, if you asked Harvey – and now she was actually smaller than Jane, who had always been thin, hardly ever varying in weight, save for her sole pregnancy, since he’d married her forty-three years ago.
“I’m not sure it’s healthy,” Harvey had said to Jane just last week, as the woman walked by rapidly, her head slightly down. She had wispy blond hair (this was new too – she had been a brunette with gray roots before), cut neatly to her shoulders that bounced softly as she walked. But the rest of her no longer bounced or shimmied or swayed. Just her hair. The rest of her was taut and rigid as she flew down the sidewalk.
“Healthier than before,” Jane said from the table where she was doing the morning crossword, smartly avoiding Harvey’s gaze as he ate his microwaved breakfast sandwich in his chair. Jane’s hair was still wet from the shower, and the silver streaks in it glinted against the thin morning light.
“Huh, well, she looks like The Incredible Disappearing Woman,” he said, a little louder than he intended, but when Jane half-snorted/half-laughed, he smiled broadly, his mouth full of biscuit and sausage, pleased at his own cleverness.
“Yep, there goes The Incredible Disappearing Woman,” he repeated, as the woman moved down the street at what seemed like a breakneck speed to Harvey, walking right up to the house with the bright green shutters and poof! vanishing inside.
The woman had not been out for six days (Harvey knew this because he sat in his chair every morning, waiting for her to walk by) when Harvey started feeling sick. He knew it was just a little indigestion, but it wouldn’t go away. Just the night before, he actually woke up gasping for air. He laid there, not wanting to wake Jane, thinking of anything to keep his mind off the heaviness in his ribcage. He thought of his daughter Sophie, all grown, and how he gets confused every time she calls because she sounds so much like Jane – sometimes he wondered if it wasn’t a trick, and it actually was Jane was calling him from the spare room at the other end of the house, just to fun him a little. He thinks too of his high school baseball team, and how he’d once been an all-state third baseman, and then lasted almost a whole year at college on scholarship until a misunderstanding with a certain sorority girl at a mid-season party sent him back home to his weepy mother. He thinks of Jane and her efficient nature, how she is always moving forward and how he has always, even when he was young and slim with strong knees, felt as if he were lagging two or three steps behind her.
The pain hadn’t completely subsided by morning, so while Jane is busy with the morning crossword he gets in his truck – a late model Dodge that he keeps polished so that he can see his own moony face reflected back to him in the paint – and motors up the six blocks to his favorite drive-thru restaurant, the one that serves both breakfast and lunch all day.
Of course, he is only going for a 7-UP or Sprite or Sierra Whatsitcalled to settle his stomach. He just prefers the taste of fountain soda. It is all that he needs. So when the man’s tinny, bored voice on the other side of the speaker asks him How can I help you today? Harvey surprises himself by ordering a double cheeseburger and a large fry. He almost forgets the soda, adding it on after the order has already been totaled and causing the tinny, bored voice to sigh audibly through the speaker.
Harvey drives away with his plunder, taking the long way back. He even stops at the park a few blocks from the house to throw away the trash from the sandwich and fries so that Jane won’t see it. The pain is more present, but Harvey is sure that it will just take a little time for the food to settle and for the 7-UP to work its magic.
He wipes at his mouth with the bandana that he always carries in his pocket, making sure there’s no stray grease or salt kernels to give him away, when he sees The Incredible Disappearing Woman’s husband (boyfriend? gay roommate? Harvey isn’t sure) weeding a patch of flowers on the front lawn of the house with the bright green shutters. He slows down, his shiny truck slithering up to the curb like an overgrown lizard. He rolls down the window with a flick of a button. The man among the flowers is younger than Harvey – he can tell by the way that he stays crouched over, all of his slight weight resting in the tendons and muscles of his ropy, unveined legs. Harvey himself has never been good with flowers, leaving them mostly to Jane who coaxes them into opening their bright, sunny faces with her loving attention.
“Hey, there! Where’s The Incredible Disappearing Woman been?”
The younger man takes no notice of him and continues to weed the flower bed.
Harvey is taken aback at the younger man’s rudeness, until he sees the wires snaking from his ears to his hip pocket. Damn headphones, Harvey mutters to himself. He thinks of his oldest grandson, Jackson– he has five (five!) altogether, all from Sophie (Harvey jokingly tells her every so often that she has given him a good return on his original investment) –who is fifteen and completely and utterly addicted to his i-whatsit, those alien cords always dangling from his ears. Harvey often has to repeat himself two, sometimes three times, before the damn kid will catch what he’s saying. He loves the boy, but Lord, he’s glad his parenting days are far in the rearview mirror.
Harvey rubs at his sternum and belches loudly. It echoes in the close quarters of the cab. He taps the horn lightly. The younger man snaps his head up and looks at Harvey, who gives him a half wave from his truck. He smiles politely (but not with his eyes) and pulls a button-sized earphone out of only one of his ears.
“Hey,” he says, in a friendly enough tone. He wipes his hands on the back of his track-style shorts. He has little hair at the top of his head but he is definitely younger than Harvey, with a beard that is still mostly brown covering the bottom half of his face.
“Hey. I’m Harvey Miles, from down the street.” Harvey points in the direction of his house.
Its gray and white exterior look somewhat faded from where Harvey sits in his truck. Like me, he thinks briefly. He presses lightly on his chest again, willing the burning away.
“I was just wondering where The Incredible Disappearing Woman has gotten off to. Haven’t seen her for a while.”
The younger man cocks his head to the side, giving him the appearance of one of those smart little dogs that Harvey sometimes notices in the movies.
“Excuse me? I don’t understand,” he says, still polite.
“Oh, sorry, that’s what I call her – The Incredible Disappearing Woman. I’ve been watching her walk by my house every day.” When he doesn’t respond, Harvey adds, “She’s lost a lot of weight.”
The man says nothing right away, just scratches at his thick, woody beard.
“I’m not sure who you’re referring to, sir,” he says, after a bit. His tone is rather formal and he looks down at his hand as he says it, as if he is embarrassed for Harvey.
Harvey feels the fire in his ribcage go from a steady simmer to a slow boil, and he presses firmly against his midsection with his blunt hands.
“What do you mean?” Harvey says, louder than he intends to, but damn! he’s really starting to hurt, and this bozo isn’t answering him. “The lady that lives here. She used to be really fat” - Harvey demonstrates her enormous size with his hands- “just a few months ago, but now she’s really thin. Too thin, I think, but my wife thinks otherwise. I just wondered where she's been, that’s all. No need to make me feel like an idiot.”
The younger man scratches again, his head this time, right where his hair used to be. Harvey is absurdly thankful that he still has a full head of hair, even though he will be sixty-seven in October. God willing. But the pain has gotten worse, and Harvey has to strain over the steady thrum in his ears to hear what the younger man is saying.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, man,” he says, raising his hands out towards Harvey in a gesture of supplication.
“You must have the wrong house – I live alone.”