The Exceptional Harvey Hooper
Matildy believed in the exceptionality of Harvey Hooper. Living in the house fifteen feet and three inches away from the Ruperts, and fifteen feet, three inches away from the Alexanders, Harvey knew his place in life. He was, as he enjoyed explaining to each of his many close friends he met around town, a firmly planted specimen of ideal manhood: just enough stomach to look as if his words held some weight, a bristly mustache to hide any femininity around his mouth, and a decently swathed combover to hide the overabundance of masculinity that causes baldness. Harvey had once heard that baldness was caused by a plethora of testosterone, and he felt he didn’t want the less manly in his community to feel themselves of lesser masculine value, so he did what he could to hide the bald spot. However, it was, Matildy felt, truly a sign of his overwhelming exceptionality. If others in the world felt it to be in anyway negative, surely that was a sign of their own inferiority complexes.
As she sat at her library desk Matildy had observed the regularity of Harvey’s visits, and the punctuality with which he returned his library materials. And his habit of brushing his sparse comb over in swirling motions around his head. An accident of distraction, of course, but Matildy noticed. Matildy noticed a great many things about Harvey. She had read in a book once that opposites attract, and ever since had known she ought to feel greatly attracted to Harvey. Therefore, she was. Even if he was a little short, and sometimes stroked his orange mustache like one strokes a ginger cat, Matildy knew that no man would be more masculine than her Harvey. He had a bald spot, after all. And not that she ever called him ‘her’ Harvey out loud. But she knew, in her secret heart of hearts, that he undoubtedly was, and had convinced that entire Ladies Bridge Club of the same.
Mrs. Bertha Alexander thought it was ridiculous, really, how Matildy threw herself at that sweet little man. Ever since her Robert died, she could never look upon another again. But Harvey was simply too beautiful a soul to go to plain old Matildy, who worked in the library. If Robert Alexander III had not stolen her heart forever, Mrs. Alexander believed she maybe would have given Harvey a chance. But, poor man, her Robert was unrivaled in her adoration, and Harvey Hooper would never know Mrs. Alexander’s tuna fish casserole. She had only made it for her husband; it seemed too intimate of a thing to share with just anyone. One’s best casserole, Mrs. Alexander believed, was the window to your very soul. And no one except Robert Alexander III was going to see into Mrs. Alexander’s glorious soul. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Alexander, her tuna casserole had been sampled by many. The dearly departed Robert Alexander III had given his entire office a taste of Mrs. Alexander’s intimate soul. He did not like tuna casserole. This is not to say one way or another how we liked his wife’s soul, and since he is dead we are left to slander and conjecture as we will.
Back in the happy, golden years of Robert Alexander III’s life, his twenties, he had a magnificent pair of bush-like sideburns. As with most men, there were specific things that Robert Alexander III could look back on as pre-Mrs. Alexander and post-Mrs. Alexander. And his sideburns, circa 1969, were one of those. They were really very luscious. As he lay down each night he could feel them bristle underneath his cheek, and he always found it comforting; it was as if there was always another present there with him, wherever he might go. Perhaps that is the reason he never felt lonely in his singleness. Who could, with such faithful companions?
However, all the simpering young ladies at Grace, Only Grace Baptist Church felt Robert Alexander III’s singleness; they felt it deeply. Brenda Beasley sat in front of the minister. If anyone, specifically named Mr. Robert Alexander III, was paying attention, he would have to peer around Brenda’s large, overly coifed, overly blond hair. Susan Anderson, Marge Lysander, Angie Scott, Stephanie Tanner, and Edna Carver all flanked the sides of the church beneath the windows; Robert Alexander III was known for giving his attention during the service to each window, semi-impartially. Between all these women existed a sort of competitive comradery; they understood the unspoken rules of this game and played accordingly. Two women, though, were not accepted into this odd community. Matildy, having just recently gotten a degree from the nearby college, was too bookish for a man to notice, in their honest opinion.
Men, they thought, appreciate women who admire their brilliance; Matildy simply saw the world for what it was, and therefore didn’t quite understand her role as supporter to man. Not that she was argumentative, the single women agreed amongst themselves, it was just that she was more likely to converse on Freud and Tolstoy, providing a conversational match instead of a subject to be enlightened. The more of men’s own opinions and minds they can impart upon a willing subject the more likable that subject is, everyone knew. So Matildy was no competition, and therefore a wallflower both to the female community and the male in question, Robert Alexander III. However, there was another woman. The Other Woman, as she was collectively called by the women of Grace, Only Grace Baptist Church. Her name was Bertha and she didn’t play fair. She trespassed against the rules of feminine pursuit and was therefore an outlaw. Not only did she arrive late to service regularly, toting a smelly tuna casserole in her wake, but resolutely placed herself snuggly at Robert Alexander III’s side week after week. Not that he noticed; his robust sideburns provided a sort of spiritual blinders to his mind’s eye. It is rather hard to be improperly distracted by a woman if the section in your soul labeled, ‘Idolatry’, is entirely filled with sideburns of the 1969 variety.
However, love is like a disease; no matter how objectionable it sounds, the comparison holds truer than any whimsical fluff. Love is like a disease, and the oftener you are around someone the more likely you are to catch it. You may assume yourself untouched and feel no different. In fact, you may escape unscathed for a while. But without fail, an insidious germ lobs itself into your healthy person. Within a bit you might feel odd, but perhaps it’s just an off day. Within a bit and a few, you swallow experimentally; is that a bit of soreness that you feel? Then, once a bit and a few has passed, you realize that you’ve been hopelessly infected and must either visit the doctor or succumb to imminent death. And since doctors have received an almost universal bad rap, wedding bells appear on almost every horizon.
Robert Alexander III heard these death tolls the day that Bertha didn’t arrive to church. He was a creature of habit, and Bertha had become habitual. Perhaps he felt what most men feel if they had been missing the front half of their beards and only had sideburns; in short, he felt bereft. It was an ache in the nebulous area between his neck and belly button, and it was uncomfortable. So the next Sunday, while Bertha flounced into church as a single woman smelling slightly of tuna, she floated out as an engaged woman, still smelling of tuna. Matildy’s discomfort reached the point of indigestion; she did not attend the wedding.
There are certain individuals in life who seem to perpetually receive the short end of the stick. The long end of the stick, for the ladies of Grace, Only Grace Baptist Church, would have been the love and devotion of Robert Alexander III. And Matildy had wanted the same, but Bertha had robbed her of the opportunity. And being a fairly traditional woman until recently, Matildy thought it against her principles to act straightforwardly concerning her love interests. The man, after all, was supposed to pursue the woman. Now, she was determined to avoid that mistake with Harvey and make him aware of the enormity of her devotion. So she told the Ladies Bridge Club, a collection of women well known for their gossiping abilities. And Bertha felt it was time to take matters into her own hands; Matildy was going too far.
Wearing her best cheetah print vest and bearing a particularly noxious batch of tuna casserole, Bertha marched towards the library. It was fitting, she thought, that the last battle had been fought at the Lord’s altar and lost, so now Matildy had seen fit to bring the battle to the altar of pagan learning. But Bertha Alexander was a veteran, and unfazed. Through the slightly smudged library doors she marched, past the sign that requested quietness, and past the sign that commanded there to be no food or drink. All’s fair in love and war, Bertha firmly believed, and this was decidedly both.
One thing that Bertha had not counted on, however, was that Matildy was, first and foremost, a librarian. While Harvey sat, orange and comfortable in the magazine section, Matildy rose to her rather unremarkable full height and apprehended Bertha.
“This is a library, and that is a tuna casserole” she said. Matildy’s sagging chest rose and fell with righteous indignation; Bertha knew she was altogether aware of the significance of the tuna casserole. Bertha then puckered her lips and arched a penciled eyebrow. “Indeed it is,” she said, then leaned closer, “I did it once, I’ll do it again” she hissed, feeling a hot flash burn her neck bright red. Adrenaline rushes always brought the annoying things on. “Darn it all, here” she said, shoving the casserole into Matildy’s hands and flapping her shirt frantically, but discreetly. Matildy simply held the casserole, acknowledging the unspoken truce. Then, the unspeakable happened. Harvey Hooper, unbeknownst to the both of them, traversed the battleground of aging library carpet and stood at their elbows.
“Is that tuna casserole in the library?” his voice was filled with something, but neither combatant could determine what. Matildy had a brief wish that it was her tuna casserole, and a slightly longer wish she had the courage to claim it as hers anyway. But Bertha beat her to the punch, as usual, “It’s mine!” she said, grabbing back the casserole. The old indigestion seemed to be returning to Matildy’s stomach. “It is,” she sighed. Defeat was inevitable. The tuna casserole was imbued with Cupid’s arrow, chopped up and disguised as celery, and the death tolls of love were sounding.
But they were not sounding for Bertha, oddly enough. Harvey Hooper, much like Robert Alexander III and everyone else we might know, hated Bertha’s tuna casserole. Furthermore, he rather liked Matildy. While Robert Alexander III had been blinded by his sideburns, either age or the thinning of hair that accompanied it had left Harvey’s heart rather available. So as he sat, week after week, he observed Matildy. She was rather exceptional, he thought. Her precision in scanning library materials was unparalleled, the way her glasses perched so elegantly on her longish nose, her wrinkling skin that sat upon her like delicate crepe paper; in short, Harvey noticed quite a lot about Matildy. And just now he noticed the distaste with which she handed back the tuna casserole. “Thank God!” he said, and Matildy left the library that with a date on Saturday.