Winner: Honorable Mention, Gateway Fiction Award. IUPUI English Department Student Awards
Harvey stared up at the cloud filled sky trying to make out the shapes of animals like he’d done as a boy. For a moment he thought he saw the shape of a small child with pigtails holding a balloon, but a car horn stole his attention. When he looked back to the sky the clouds had moved. His brief moment of serenity had passed as quickly as the winds from the Lakes could roll in. Harvey looked down. Both of his pant legs were soaked, but the left much worse than the right, with a clear water line just above the knee of his corduroy pants. Corduroy, while a pleasantly warm and comfortable material to wear during the cool Michigan autumn, wasn’t well suited for moisture. He squeezed each pant leg tight around his calves and pushed down toward his feet. It felt like he was wringing out a towel that had accidentally fallen into the bathtub. Each squeeze sent water trickling down his leg, into his sock, and settling at the bottom of his, once white, Asics. He gave one more hopeful look upward to the clouds, to no avail, lifted his left foot, and pushed down on the peddle of his old rickety Schwinn as the traffic light turned green.
Harvey wrestled in a deep breath and labored his way through the early morning chill and the multitude of puddles left behind from a long rainy night. Normally, he’d be pouring a hot cup of coffee in the employee lounge of the post office by now. Normally, his Chevette didn’t have two flat tires. He looked down at his watch. It read 6:13 a.m. He peddled faster praying that the bicycle he’d had since high school would hold up the last half mile. Eleven minutes later, pissed off and soaking, he clocked in to work when Wendell, one of the mail sorters for the south side of town, walked up behind him.
“Jesus Christ Harv! What the hell happened to you?”
“Nothing a few shots of whiskey wouldn’t fix. But instead I get you guys.”
“I didn’t know you drank.”
“I’d imagine that there’s one or two things you may not know about me”
“What’s with the bicycle helmet?”
Harvey glared at Wendell.
“I wear it in case my car flips over.”
He brushed past Wendell and down the hall to his sorting area. Each footstep brought a loud, wet squeak and left a small puddle behind. Harvey was in charge of all of the mail going to the west side of town. He was meticulous in his work, checking ever letter twice before sending it through. He’d check to make sure it was sealed properly. He’d double check the spelling. He even kept a spreadsheet of people’s names and addresses. He did all this by himself. The other three sides of town had two sorters a piece, but Harvey preferred to work alone. Harvey wasn’t rude or mean, but he certainly didn’t emit sunshine and roses. Most people steered clear of him, and he preferred it that way. He didn’t want anybody getting close to him. He wouldn’t be taken advantage of. His trust had been forsaken before, but not again. He kept his guard up day and night. Not even a figment of his dreams would conquer his conviction. Just as Harvey sat down, Wendell poked his head around the edge of the door frame.
“Gale wants to see ya.”
Harvey stood up annoyed, still tired from the bike ride, and squished his way down to Gale’s office. He gave two knocks on the door frame as he poked his head in the doorway. “Come on in Harvey”
“Hey Gale, I’m sorry about being late this morning. I had some car trouble and…”
“That’s fine Harvey, that isn’t what I wanted to speak with you about. Actually, I was looking through some employee files and your record here is very impressive. You’ve got perfect attendance and you’ve only had one delivery lost in two years working here. Most guys lose one a week. You really seem to take pride in your work. So I was wondering if you’d be interested in a promotion to head coordinator.”
Harvey didn’t answer right away. He just stared at one of the many pictures of Gale’s children she’d placed on her desk which made it look more like a shrine than a work area.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, thanks. I’m just a little surprised by all this. Would it be alright if I took the day to think about it?”
“Umm, sure. Just come talk to me in the morning,” she replied, seeming a bit confused by Harvey’s response.
Harvey nodded his head and rose from his seat, the act of which released a suction sound as his still damp pants came unstuck from his thighs. He walked back down the long hallway to the sorting room and plopped into his swivel chair. He wondered what it would be like to leave his dingy dungeon with the coffee stained carpet. Everything that he’d initially hated about that post office basement, he had become strangely fond of. The way you had to pass three security doors going in or out, and the way the air was dank and musty from being sealed behind those three doors.
It was regulation for one door to be closed before the next opened, making it impossible for even the slightest bit of circulation with the fresh air above. It was like you were stuck in a time warp where the air was always three months older than the air above ground. He’d even become accustomed to the odor of the adhesive from the stamps and envelopes, which was so strong it literally left the taste of glue in his mouth until he could get off work and grab his customary root beer float from the diner across the street.
At the end of the day Harvey clocked out, walked past the shelves of envelopes, through the three security doors, and outside to his old shaky Schwinn. But the sight of its rusted frame disgusted him and he decided to walk home. He took a short cut through Barrington Park, up Madison Way, and back out onto Biltmore Avenue for the last few miles to his house. As he walked down the sidewalk, he kicked each puddle he passed as if he were getting revenge for all the trouble they’d caused him earlier that morning. Then further down the sidewalk he saw the huge puddle that’d soaked his pants, the main culprit. His eyes narrowed, he spaced his steps and right before he could swing his leg through the murky water he heard a car horn honk.
“Hey Harvey. Need a ride?”
It was Lillian, the beautiful, bubbly redhead that lived in the apartment across the hall from Harvey’s. He’d had a crush on her since the day she moved in to his apartment building three months earlier. He’d helped her carry her groceries once, and they made small talk when they would pass in the hall, but nothing more. He knew there was no way a girl that amazing would go for a whelp like him. He’d ignored any hope that he’d ever get closer to her, and now… he was riding in her car.
“Uh, yeah, car had a couple flat tires. Gotta get new ones”
“Where is your bike?”
“Back at work. Thought I’d take a walk. Got a lot of stuff on my mind.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“No no, I wouldn’t want to bore you with my problems.”
Lillian stared straight ahead at the road, then a smile crept onto her face and she turned back to Harvey.
“Ok, when we get back to the apartment I’m going to run in and change clothes, grab a few beers, then I’m coming over and you’re going to bore me with whatever’s on your mind.”
Harvey was stunned. To him, he was just a 41-year-old, pudgy, balding, grump who worked at the post office. She was around 30, had beautiful hazel eyes, and a body, that had on more than one occasion distracted him to the point of causing him to walk into stationary objects. But the thing he loved most about her was her mouth. It had the most unique shape. Every time she spoke he saw her lips moving in slow motion. Time ceased to exist. All there was were her lips and his unquenchable desire to kiss them, but he’d long since abandoned that fantasy.
He rushed to his apartment and quickly began to clean up. Actually it was more like tossing objects into closets and hampers, but he accomplished his main goal of making his living room look…livable. He went into his bedroom and took a few hits from a joint he’d rolled that morning for the drive to work that never happened, sprayed some air freshener to cover the smell, and returned to the living room. He walked over to his prized possession, a vintage 1957 Wurlitzer 850 Peacock jukebox, stocked full of Rolling Stones albums. While the rest of his two bedroom apartment had been in a state of disarray, the Wurlitzer didn’t have a speck of dust on it. He pressed 13D, lit a cigarette, and sat down to wait for Lillian as “Beast of Burden” began to play.
A few minutes later, she came over dressed as if she were on a date, carrying two beer bottles in each hand. She floated through Harvey’s apartment as if she were in her own home; Going through drawers looking for bottle openers, through cabinets looking for glasses. She picked up a candle and asked Harvey if he had a lighter. Just as he began to say “bedroom” and stand up, she was half way down the hall. She hollered back to the living room that he needed to hire a maid, or get a girlfriend. Ninety nine percent of people would’ve gotten harsh words and a boot out the door for going through his things, but it pleased Harvey to see Lillian so comfortable in his home.
She returned from the bedroom frowning, holding a lit candle and the joint he’d left in the ashtray.
“So you use drugs? Don’t you know this stuff kills brain cells and harms your lungs?”
“Um, I, Uh…my friend left it here, I don’t ever touch the stuff,” he stuttered.
“Then you wouldn’t mind if I smoke it?”
Lillian’s perfect lips formed a giant smile as she jumped onto the couch beside Harvey, lit the joint, and took a large swig from her beer.
“So, now that I’m getting a little messed up you won’t bore me, so shoot.”
“Well, I was offered a promotion today.”
“Oh, that is a bummer,” she replied with a clearly sarcastic tone.
“No, I know. It’s just…I don’t know…I just sort the mail, I belong in the sorting room. I don’t know if I can do something different.”
“What is there to lose? It sounds like a little change may do you good.”
“I know it’s difficult to understand, but…I just have to be there.”
“You know, a lot of times, we want to stay in our comfort zone. We think that standing still is the only way to avoid our problems. But I think that when we take that step and move on to new things, we often catch up to some of the answers we’d been waiting to find us.”
She held the joint out towards Harvey. He accepted it and took a big drag, letting the smoke roll from his mouth, up through his nostrils. Lillian giggled and said.
“Friend left it here my ass! We’ve been neighbors all this time and you’ve been holding out on me. That hurts, deep down…down in my heart.”
Lillian laughed and whipped her hair showing obvious signs of the beginning stages of inebriation. She was already nearing the end of her second beer.
“I absolutely love your jukebox. Where’d you get it?”
“I’ve had it since my father’s diner shut down in 1974. He passed away two years later and this is all I have to remember him by. It’s all I have left from my divorce five years ago. The lawyers divided our things by value. I got my jukebox and the boat. She got the house. Then she sold it and ran off it to Spain where she’d always wanted to live.”
“Did you two have any children?” she asked.
Harvey paused. He stared at the floor and scratched his head as if he were trying to think of an answer to a riddle. Lillian saw the expression on his face and could see that this was a touchy subject with him. She decided to tell Harvey something she hadn’t told anyone since she moved to town.
“I had a son,” she said. “He…he died 46 minutes after I gave birth. He had an enlarged heart.”
Harvey looked up at Lillian. It made him sick to his stomach that hearing of someone else’s pain actually seemed to make him feel better about his own.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he replied.
“My mother would always say that God gave me a son for 46 minutes and an angel for the rest of my life,” Lillian said, her smile hampered by the weight of her past.
“Marjorie was pregnant when she filed for divorce.” Harvey blurted. “She called me from Spain to tell me she’d had a miscarriage. I wasn’t home so she left a message. She said that the stress was too much and her body couldn’t handle it.”
“Oh Harvey. I am so sorry.”
He took a long drink then said.
“The Lord giveth…and He sure as hell taketh even more away, doesn’t He?”
Lillian took his hand and held it in hers. Harvey was a split second from confessing his feelings for her when she looked up at the antique cuckoo clock on his wall.
“Are those birds on eastern standard time?”
“Shit, I’m sorry but I have to leave. I told my friend Gary that I’d go to his poetry reading.”
Gary. Her “friend”. Harvey’s heart sank back down to reality. That’s why she was all dressed up. He could picture her greeting Gary with a big hug and kiss, while he sat at home with his TV dinner for one, and watched “Jeopardy” by himself.
While digging through her purse she said, “Yeah, poems about gay rights and same-sex marriages aren’t my thing, but I promised him I would go support him.”
Gary is gay? It was ironic that for the first time in Harvey’s life the word gay had made him feel so happy.
“I had a great time Harvey. Maybe we could hang out again sometime.”
“That’d be nice. How about tomorrow? Same time?”
“It’s a date. And I just wanted to say that… I can sense that you’re not entirely satisfied with your life, and I think you should seize every opportunity you can to make yourself happy.”
Lillian leaned in and gave Harvey a hug and peck on the cheek. The warmth from her lips made Harvey weak in the knees. He’d wanted to feel them since the first time he laid eyes on her. He knew that the two beers she’d brought for herself and the one of his, which she’d started on, had more to do with this sign of affection than any actual attraction, but he didn’t care. He’d take any bit of attention from her that he could get, and cherish every second of it.
After Lillian left, Harvey took a long hot shower. He put on the robe that was half of a “his and hers” set that he and Marjorie had received as a wedding gift. He walked into his bedroom, sat down on his bed, and stared east out of the window. After a moment he reached under his bed and pulled out a shoe box, set it in his lap and removed the lid. Inside was $9,374. All the money he’d saved over the previous two years. He sat the roll of bills on the bed to his right. On top was a travel guide for Spain. Beneath that was a detailed spreadsheet that showed exactly how much it would cost to go to Spain. It listed hotels, food, cab fare, car rental prices, and the price of a return flight ticket. Under that was a book that translated English to Spanish.
He pulled it all out and stared down into the bottom of the shoe box at something that had haunted him since the day it came into his possession. Something that had put the blemish of one lost delivery on his record. It was addressed to Mike and Cindy Prescott, 183 Silver Wolf Dr. Harvey noticed the address before he even glanced at the names. He knew it well since he’d spent so much time there over the years. It was Marjorie’s parent’s home. The return address was:
Luna, 10 – 3o
28300 ARANJUEZ (MADRID)
Inside the envelope was a letter written in Marjorie’s handwriting and a picture of a little girl standing in the middle of a cobble stone street wearing a sailor’s dress, holding a group of balloons. Harvey hadn’t told Lillian the entire truth. Marjorie had refused to speak to him once their divorce was final so he had to hear of the miscarriage through a message on his answering machine. It was as cruel and cold-hearted a way to convey that information as he could imagine. All Harvey knew was that one day he was a father and the next he wasn’t. Until the day that envelope found him.
He knew it was a federal offense to take it, but something in his gut forced him. He ran to the restroom, ripped it open and slowly sank to the floor when he saw its contents. It was the photo, and a letter explaining how well 2-year-old Chloe was doing, and that she couldn’t wait to meet her grandparents. Chloe. The name they’d chosen for their supposedly deceased child.
This letter was what made Harvey such a painstaking worker, why he was never late, why he had doubts about taking the promotion. He was terrified that Marjorie would send another letter and he wouldn’t be there to intercept it. He was afraid he’d miss another chance to see his daughter’s face.
This was his fuel. This was his motivation. This was what he thought of every second of every day he’d worked at the post office since he found the first letter. His daughter was now four years old and with international law it was nearly impossible for an American to force a paternity test with a citizen of another country. However, he swore to himself that he’d find a way to reach his daughter. He kissed the picture and returned it and the other contents of the shoe box back to their hiding spot beneath his bed.
For the first time in years Harvey didn’t have nightmares of chasing his daughter through unknown Spanish streets. Seeing her run parallel to him, at the opposite end of alleys and corridors, giggling and unresponsive to his cries, a plume of balloons floating just inches behind her every step. No, this night Harvey dreamed of teaching Chloe how to ride a bike in the park, the sound of her laughter echoing through his mind.
First thing the next morning, Harvey called Gale to inform her that he would be more than happy to except the promotion. However, he wouldn’t be able to step into the new position for a few weeks as he was going to be cashing in his stockpile of vacation time. Harvey explained that he was exhausted and needed some time off; that he was thinking of doing some traveling. Gale took the news much better than Harvey could have every anticipated. She told him that the job was his when he returned, and asked him where he was thinking about going.
“Spain,” was his quick and simple reply.
All Harvey needed was for someone to show him that life is made up of both small and large choices; all of which decide the outcome of our lives. With that little boost from Lillian, he’d finally made up his mind that he wasn’t going to wait on life’s answers to find him. He would venture forth and create his own solutions. He would be the one to steer his ship. No longer would depression and solitude be the mitigating factors in his life. No longer would he stand still, like a scared child, lost in a crowd, waiting for their mother to appear. He decided that there was no such thing as fate or bad luck, but that he could mold his own destiny.
With a suitcase in each hand and his keys gripped in his teeth, Harvey rushed out the door to catch his flight. Halfway down his porch steps the keys fell out of his mouth which was now wide open, as he observed his car…and his two forgotten flat tires.