Don’t Be a Stranger, by John Kinsella

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

From “Rose-Colored Glasses,” which was published in the Winter 2022 issue of Raritan.

Long gray hair shredded by the cold demiwind funneling up through the village, curving up and around from the harbor where boats strained at their moorings. She followed close behind, was almost knocked over by his stride, the kick of his heels, asking him to, Wait wait, please wait for me! His rose-colored glasses glinted statement and resistance and possibly non-comprehension, and he pushed on in front of cars, squeezing through gaps of main street traffic, swirled off toward the edge of town past the church and the graves.

A gray heron settled on a roof peak and croaked distress and indifference, while herring gulls shat but missed. The gulls reflected on all below, and were caught in his thin, perfectly flat lenses, then were lost in the thin golden frames. He looked back to see if she was there, and seeing that she was, went on with even more purpose.

Unwanted by most if not all in the village, he felt as if he had to make a statement, declare himself. I am here, and there’s nothing you can do about it! And he shouted back toward the village, There’s nothing you can do about it!

She put her hands over her ears and said, Enough! but he’d turned back toward where he was heading, to their cottage, and strode even faster than before.

People were always trying to do something about his treatment of her, and felt sorry that she couldn’t or wouldn’t see what a loser he was. They just couldn’t make sense of why she stayed with him, even the religiously conservative among them who thought marriage was a sentence for life, almost no matter what. But she followed him everywhere, looking worn-out and downtrodden. When quizzed, she snapped to life and snarled back, Mind your business.

It was said that, when she died, his first wife left him half a million euros, her cousin (his present downtrodden wife), and that pair of ridiculous rose-colored glasses he never seemed to take off, but which clearly looked like non-prescription wear . . . and which, it was concluded, she’d actually worn in a Dublin stage production of Hair, maybe at the time they first met, a production which caused some kind of problem with the Church, though it was an amateur troupe of largely summer-holidaying Americans, who also made up the audiences of the few shows performed in a small rented hall. This was all unearthed.

Admittedly, it was a strange story, and the village librarian-cum-historian, to whom the investigation was entrusted by the rest of the village sleuths, could come up with little more than a flyer someone had sent him confidentially via mail from Boston that had been kept in a travel album. The historian never revealed his contact, but there was an actual flyer preserved in a plastic sleeve for all to see. Even the man’s partner, his deceased wife’s cousin, had seen it herself, but she betrayed no emotion, just said, Thanks for showing me. Actually, it was noted and added to the file: regarding said rose-colored glasses, it seems likely they’ve been through a few lenses and maybe even frame changes since their time on
the stage. But there was at least a suggested continuity.

I want to stage Hair in the village, and I want you to play Jeanie and wear these glasses, he said, taking them off with care and handing them to her.

I am too old now! And I was never an actor like she was . . . I wasn’t even an amateur, I was always a beginner. And if I remember correctly Jeanie wears a gas mask in Hair!

At the beginning, but not later, he said, to show what the modern world is like, which it is, even down here as far away from industrialization as we can get. And it would be a reinterpretation anyway—Hair all these decades later, what might have been and has become.

It won’t bring her back. It’s you the villagers don’t trust because you never talk with them, you treat them with disdain, share none of yourself. And can you imagine the church music group providing the soundtrack?

He started to laugh, but pushed it back down deep, and then looked as if he might snatch the glasses back, but he reached gently for them, placed them on his own face with a lopsided reverence, and went back to his silence, their silence.

One night in bed as the sea winds coiled over the rocks and bogs and found the cottage and threatened to tear it apart, he said to her, She wanted me to do risky things . . . daring things . . . bad things . . . because she found such things exciting, and I was boring to her, really dull. She said she’d married me because I was a safe bet, and she needed security and reliability because she could get carried away—not financial security, she had that, but emotional . . . she needed a kind of emotional flatness and thought she’d found that in me.

Yes, she got carried away easily, said her cousin, snuggling up to him just because he was talking, because whatever was being said it was better than the silence.

I did things to amuse her, he said . . . things I didn’t like doing.

Maybe, she risked saying to him . . . maybe she liked to think of you doing them, but didn’t really want you to do them—she was like that with me when we were children.

I’ve never thought of it that way, he said, but maybe that was the case, maybe. And he held her close, and kissed her on the top of her head, moving stray hairs then rearranging them with an intimacy she had forgotten. They’d sort of—almost—been girlfriend and boyfriend before he got caught up in the swirl and excitement that was her cousin, the glamour and action, the enthusiasm for life. Even then, when they were not quite an item, and before they could become one, the Great Actor To Be that was her cousin swept in and relocated him . . . even then, just chatting as friends, they had more intimacy than he’d ever have in his marriage. But they were apart and couldn’t be together in any meaningful way—cousin-wife-actor occupied the whole stage and sucked in all the fresh air.

Until grief brought them finally together, welded them as polar opposites fighting the magnetic rejection that the town would find so disturbing from the outset, that wrecked the communal sleep more than the Atlantic storms, stench of slurry spreading, and the furze burnings of spring.

Not Hair, she said, but we need to do something for the village. Something that will show them who we are.

Who are we? he asked.

I don’t know, she said, and there are some bits we should keep to ourselves.

But the village historian will find us out. . . . He laughed. And she laughed, too. The only time they’d laughed since her death.

The village historian was genuinely excited and rounded up ten prominent village folk to attend O’Rourke’s cottage for a night of ghost stories performed by the disturbing husband and wife team, to go into the stronghold of the enemy and smite him down and stage a rescue of his long-suffering wife . . . it was an opportunity too good to refuse. Everyone was to bring a dish and anything they liked to drink, as suspiciously neither husband nor wife were drinkers.

They were greeted at the threshold by the man, who was almost grinning, with his long hair carefully combed out, but without the rose-colored glasses, which were being worn by his wife, who it turned out told most of the stories, though he joined in at salient moments.

They were actually good fun! People loosened up, and told a few of their own stories, and got slowly pickled and forgetful. It went well, until the last story of the night, told by the husband, who snatched the rose-colored glasses almost violently from his wife’s face.

He said: A man who had never been angry became angry when he discovered he’d been set up and betrayed by his glamorous and talented wife. She died because he willed it. He collected snippets of her hair and nails from her still-warm corpse and placed them in a silver locket that he hung around his neck, and that no one except his new wife ever saw.

But his new wife had no idea that the locket controlled her life, and that she was being reduced to the dead wife’s container—though the dead wife in this new body actually had no control over the husband she’d cuckolded and tormented (but who still obsessed over her, and loved her), and he demanded she behave in this fresh body as he wished or he’d remove it from her . . . or, rather, her from it.

The new wife—the deceased wife’s cousin—thought she was herself, but she wasn’t. But the man couldn’t look at what he’d done by the light of day, so guilty was he, so he wore rose-colored glasses—his dead wife’s rose-colored glasses . . . a theater prop—so he could see her in the body of her cousin.

Even so, at some point he decided that the old wife’s spirit was a malign force, and that the ill she’d done him in life was still going on—that she’d willed him to kill her, to collect her hair and nails, to capture and occupy the living body of her cousin. It had been part of her plan, and it infuriated him because he could neither understand it nor gain control over the situation.

He did not understand why until one day talking with her in bed—without his glasses and with light streaming in, he saw the cousin, his fleshly wife, the container, calling out to him; and she was patient and loving and virtuous and tolerant. He decided to release her and cast his first wife’s possessing spirit away once and for all.

The villagers were transfixed. Staring at his wife, who clearly loved him and forgave him for much, the man reached in under his collar, pulled out a locket, tore it from his neck so chain links flew violently everywhere, even into the lap of the village historian, and then dropped the locket onto the floorboards, crushing it under his hobnailed boot.

Gasps around the room meant a delay in response before he scraped up the remnants and hurled them into the fire that had gone from being fierce to cozy to fierce again.

And suddenly his wife burst into hysterical laughter and said, What a wonderful way to finish the evening—and to think that any of you—she scanned the visitors arrayed on a hodgepodge of different chairs and wooden boxes around the pokey lounge room—thought my man was anything but a fun, good-natured, and even sociable creature. Tonight, you have seen the real man come out of his shell and bloom like a night flower! Remember us as friends—we are always here if you need us . . . don’t be strangers to us anymore.

More from