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Harry is a wit.
Someone has described a wit as a person who can tell a funny story without cracking a smile. That's Harry.
"You know," Steve said at the office one day, "I'll bet Harry will walk right up to the flaming gates of Hell, keeping the Devil in stitches all the way, and never change expression."
That's the kind of fellow Harry is. A great guy to have around the office. Almost makes you want to go to work in the morning, thinking of the coffee break or watching until you can join Harry at the water cooler or in the men's room. Sometimes you got to laugh, just to see him, thinking about the last story he told. Smart, too, digging up odd facts, piling on detail after detail until you just got to admit he's right, and you finally see something straight for the first time. Everybody says he'd be president of the place someday, if he didn't make jokes about the company, too.
But the kind of story Harry likes -- he likes them long. They start slow -- sometimes you don't even know it's a joke -- and build up until all at once you explode with laughter and then each new touch leaves you more helpless. The kind of story you take home to your wife and you get part way through, laughing like an idiot, and you notice she's just sitting there, sort of patient like a martyr, thinking maybe about getting dinner on the table or how she's going to re-do the living room, and you stop laughing and sigh and say, "It must be the way he tells it" or "Nobody can tell stories like Harry."
But then women don't think Harry's funny.
Like the other night. Harry and I were sitting in his living room while the women -- Lucille and Jane --were whipping up something in the kitchen after the last rubber.
"Did you ever stop to think," Harry said, "about what strange creatures women really are? The way they change, I mean, after you marry them. You know -- they stop hanging on your words, they stop worrying about what you like or don't like, they stop laughing at your jokes."
I chuckled and said, "So the honeymoon is over," Harry and Lucille being married only a month or so.
"Yes," Harry said seriously. "I guess you could say that. The honeymoon is over."
"Tough," I said. "The girl you marry and the woman you're married to are two different people."
"Oh, no. They're not. That's just the point."
"The point?" I began to suspect something. "You mean there's a point?"
"It's not just a matter of superficial differences, you see. It's something fundamental. Women think differently, their methods are different, their goals are different. So different, in fact, that they are entirely incomprehensible."
"I gave up trying to understand them a long time ago," I said, with a despairing wave of the hand.
"That's where we make our mistake," Harry said somberly. "We accept when we should try to understand. We must understand why. As the Scotch say, 'All are good lasses, but where come the ill wives?' "
"Why?" I echoed. "Well, they're built differently. Inside, too, glands, bearing children, and all that."
Harry looked scornful. "That's their excuse, and it's not good enough. They should do best what their differences fit them for. Marriage is their greatest career -- and their greatest failure. A man to them is only the necessary evil they must have before they can get the other things they want."
"Like the black widow spider and her mate?" I suggested.
"In a way. And yet, not entirely. The spiders, at least, are of the same species."
It was a moment before the meaning sank in. "And men and women aren't?" I almost shouted.
"Sh!" he warned, and glanced nervously at the kitchen door.
Then was when I began to chuckle. Harry should have been on television; he was not only a comedian, he was an actor. On top of that I had to admire the guy, making a joke out of what is -- every husband can tell you -- one of the greatest and most secret tragedies of life. Greater even because no one can talk about it. No one but Harry.
I laughed. That must have been what he was waiting for, because he nodded, relaxed, and stopped glancing at the door out of the corner of his eye. Or maybe that was after Lucille peeked out of the kitchen and said, "Harry off on one of his stories again? Tell us when he's through, so we can bring in the refreshments."
It was cute the way she said it, she's so pretty and blonde and tiny and all, and you could tell it was a running joke with them. I couldn't help thinking what a lucky guy Harry was -- if a fellow has to get married, that is, and most of us do.
"The alien race," Harry whispered and leaned back.
It was a good line and I laughed again.
"What better way," he went on quietly, "to conquer a race than to breed it out of existence? The Chinese learned that trick a long time ago. Conqueror after conqueror overran the country, and each one was passively accepted, allowed to marry -- enveloped, devoured, obliterated. Only this case is just the reverse. Breed in the conqueror, breed out the slave; breed in the alien, breed out the human."
"Makes sense," I said, nodding.
"How did it all start?" Harry asked. "And when? If I knew these answers I would know everything. Did a race of mateless females descend upon the Earth when man was still almost a cave-dwelling animal? Or was it in historic times? My guess is they were dropped here by their men. Jettisoned. Dumped. 'If that's the way you're going to be, Baby, you can just walk home.' Except there are no footpaths in space."
"That was pretty drastic."
He shrugged. "They were aliens, remember. Maybe they had some solution, some procreative substitute for women. Maybe these women were the worst of the lot and the ones they had left were better. Or maybe the men didn't give a damn. Maybe they preferred racial suicide to surrender."
Angrily he shoved the coffee table aside, grumbling something about women's ideas of furnishing a home, and pulled his chair closer. "Okay, what could they do, these creatures from another world? '....the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home, she stood in tears among the alien corn' was nothing to what they must have felt. But the song they heard was not that of the nightingale, but the song of conquest.
"They couldn't just exterminate humanity, now could they? Besides that's dangerous and virtually impossible. Give man a danger he can see, and he will never surrender. Women don't think like that. Their minds work in devious ways; they win what they want by guile and subtlety. That's why they married into the human race."
"You sound so certain," I said.
"This isn't just idle speculation; there's evidence. According to Jewish folklore, Eve wasn't the first woman. First, there was Lilith. Eve was the usurper. Oh, they made mistakes. They had to experiment. The Amazons -- were they an experiment? Once a year, you know, they visited the Gargareans, a neighboring tribe; any resulting male children were put to death. That didn't work for long, of course. Their purpose, their very alienness, was too obvious. And the matriarchies -- too blatant, would have given the whole thing away eventually. Besides, men are useful in ways that women aren't. Men are inventive, artistic, creative -- and can be nagged or coaxed into doing what women want them to do anyway."
I lit a cigarette and looked for an ashtray. He shoved over a silly little dish that would suffocate a cigarette the minute you laid it down.
"That's what women buy when you aren't watching," Harry said. "The purpose isn't important; it's the appearance that counts. Lights that look pretty and make you blind. They want a house with southern exposure and a picture window, and then they put up heavy drapes to keep the furniture from fading. They buy new furniture and hide it in slipcovers. They clean up the house so it will be nice to live in, and then they get angry when you try to get comfortable in it."
I dug out a pillow that was putting a crick in my back and threw it on another chair. "Are they all alike?"
He frowned. "I wonder. One hears about happy marriages, but that might be only alien propaganda. Perhaps there are a few Liliths left -- women who like to read, who use their minds, who like sports and competition, who can grasp abstract ideas. You could use these as tests, perhaps -- if there are any human women."
"How about women," I chipped in, "who prefer the company of men to that of other women?"
He started to nod and then shook his head. "It would just be guesswork. They're smart -- smarter than we are about getting along, about getting around people. They use weapons like tears and mad fits and sulks against which we've never invented a defense."
"There are women who are satisfied with a comfortable life," I suggested, "who don't drive their husbands to so much insurance that they're worth more dead than alive and then work them to death. That sounds pretty human."
"If there are any like that," he said gloomily. "Anyway we'll never really know the answers. The important thing is to recognize the situation -- to do something about it -- before it's too late. It's in the last few generations that their plans have come to fruition. They have the vote, equal rights without surrendering any privileges, and so forth. They're outliving men. They control ninety per cent of the wealth. And soon" --his voice sank to a significant whisper --"they'll be able to do away with men altogether -- fertilization by salt water, electrical stimulus, that sort of thing. And we're the traitor generation. We're the ones who are committing suicide -- for the whole human race."
"We won't be needed any more," I said, trying not to laugh.
He nodded. "Don't think I haven't got more than vague suspicions. And it's been damned hard. Knowledge of the female conspiracy has died out in the last fifty years. There's no longer even that subconscious knowledge that alerted the centuries of men before -- that body of tradition and folklore which is a sort of inherited wisdom of a people. We've been taught to scorn all that as superstition. Most teachers are women, of course."
I gave him his straight line. "Our ancestors knew about all this?"
"They knew. Maybe they were afraid to spell it out, but they kept hinting at it. Homer, Ovid, Swift --'A dead wife under the table is the best goods in a man's house,' said Swift. Antiphanes, Menander, Cato -- there was a wise one. 'Suffer women once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors.' Plautus, Clement of Alexandria, Tasso, Shakespeare, Dekker, Fletcher, Thomas Browne -- the list is endless. The Bible: 'How can he be clean that is born of woman?' 'I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence'...."
For fifteen minutes he continued -- covering the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance -- and hadn't begun to run dry. Even for Harry this was digging deep for a story. This is Harry's peak, I said to myself, a little awed. He will never do anything better than this.
Then Harry began getting closer to modern times.
" 'Women are much more like each other than men,' said Lord Chesterfield. And Nietzsche: 'Thou goest to women? Don't forget thy whip.' Then there was Strindberg, touched by a divine madness which gave him visions of hidden truths. Shaw, who concealed his suspicions in laughter lest he be torn to pieces--"
"Ibsen?" I suggested, chuckling, dredging a name out of my school days that I vaguely remembered was somehow connected with the subject.
Harry spat, as if he had something vile in his mouth.
"That traitor! That blind fool! It was Ibsen who first dramatized the insidious propaganda which led, eventually, to the so-called emancipation of women and was really the loosing of the chains which kept them from ravening unrestrained."
"Ravening," I chortled. "Oh, yes, yes. Ravening!"
"You must go back to folk sayings to get real truth," Harry said, quieting a little. " 'A man is happy only two times in his life,' say the Jugoslavs. 'When he marries a wife and when he buries her.' Or the Rumanians: 'When a man takes a wife, he ceases to dread Hell.' Or the Spanish: 'Who hath a wife hath also an enemy.' 'Never believe a woman, not even a dead one,' advise the German peasants. The wisdom of the Chinese: 'Never trust a woman, even though she has given you ten sons.' "
He stopped, not as if he were near the end of his material but to begin brooding.
"Did you ever look for something," he asked, "a collar button, say, or a particular pair of socks -- and it isn't there and you tell your wife? Why is it she can come and pick it up and it's right under your nose all the time?"
"What else have they got to think about?"
"It makes you wonder," he said. "It makes you wonder if it really was there when you looked. They aren't mechanical, they hate machines, and yet they know when something's about to break down. 'Hear that funny little sound in the engine,' they'll say. 'Like a grasshopper's wings rubbing together.' You can't hear anything, but the next hour or the next day the fan belt breaks. All of a sudden food tastes wrong to them. 'This milk tastes funny. The cows have been eating wheat.' Or 'This meat's funny.' 'What do you mean, it's funny?' you ask. 'It's just funny. I can't describe it.' After awhile you're afraid to drink anything or eat anything."
I agreed with him and thought, Strange, the odd truths that Harry can link into something excruciatingly funny.
"They have no respect for logic," Harry said. "No respect at all for the sanctity of a man's mind, for what his world is built upon. They argue as it suits them, waving away contradictions and inconsistencies as meaningless. How many of us have our Xanthippes, bent on dragging us down from our contemplation of divine truth to the destructive turmoil of daily strife? It's maddening, maddening!"
This was Harry's story, but it needed one thing, a climax, a clincher to wind up all the threads into a neat ball of laughter.
"What would they do," I asked soberly, "if they discovered that someone knew their secret?"
Harry smiled. For one unwary second I thought he was slipping, but I should have known better. The smile was sardonic.
"There," Harry said, "you have hit upon the crux. If my surmises are true, why has no one else discovered it? And the answer is -- they have!"
"They have?" I repeated.
Harry nodded. "They would have to be done away with, of course. Silenced. And it would have to show up somewhere -- if one knew where to look."
He paused. "Why," he said, pointing a finger at me, "are there more men in asylums than women?"
I collapsed, hysterical. I choked. I burbled. I gasped. When the women came in a moment later with their ridiculous little sandwiches and coffee and strange dessert, I was barely able to get out a couple of words.
"Hi, alien!" I spluttered at Jane.
And I laughed some more, especially when I saw the stricken face Harry was putting on, as if he were horrified, terribly frightened, sort of all sunk in on himself -- better, much better, than I've seen a professional actor do it on television.
The look on the women's faces brought me around finally -- the bored look -- and I tried to share the joke. Harry was laughing, too, kind of weakly. That surprised me a little; he always is sort of bland and mildly curious when one of his stories turn his listeners into squirming protoplasm, as if he were saying, "Oh, did I do that?"
So I started telling it and got part way through and -- well, you know the way it ends. I looked at Harry for help but he wasn't giving any, and I kind of died slowly. "It must be the way he tells it," I said, surrendering. "Nobody can tell stories like Harry."
You see what I mean. Women don't think Harry's funny.
And so the evening was all right. A little flat at the end, the way evenings usually are, nice for a while but tapering off until there isn't much to say but "good night -- had a wonderful time -- have to do it again soon," and we said it.
As we were going out I heard Lucille say, kind of sharp, "Harry, there's something wrong with the hot water heater. You've been promising to look at it for days, and you've got to do something about it tonight because I'm going to do the washing tomorrow," and I heard Harry answer, "Yes, dear," very meek and obedient, and I thought, The guy's got to blow off steam somewhere, and I figured I'd be hearing the story again at the office.
Which goes to show how wrong a man can be.
Next morning Lucille called up and said Harry was sick -- turned out it was a heart attack, a coronary -- and couldn't come to work. I called there a couple of times, but Lucille said he was too sick to see anybody, the doctor wanted him kept very quiet, and maybe he wasn't going to pull through. And I guess Harry is really sick because Lucille had Dr. Simpson, that woman doctor, and Harry's said many times he wouldn't have her treat his sick dog if he wanted the dog to get well. I knew then Harry was too sick to care.
It's funny how quick a fellow can go. I got to thinking what a shame it was that Harry's finest effort, the climax of his wit, so to speak, should go with him, and how it's too bad that great vocal art should vanish without leaving a trace.
I began trying to remember -- and I couldn't remember so good -- particularly the quotations -- so I did a little research of my own, to give an idea what it was like. I even ran across a couple Harry missed, and I guess I'll put them in because probably Harry knew them and just didn't get around to talking about them.
One of them everybody knows. The one of Kipling's that begins, "The female of the species...." The other one I worked up by myself, just thinking. Why, I asked myself one day, are there more widows than widowers?
Jane is calling me to come down and fix the furnace.
But I don't know. I don't remember anything being wrong with the furnace.
Copyright © 1992 by James Gunn