Harvey Nelson awoke like he was surfacing from a deep plunge in cold water. His eyes snapped open and he drew in a sharp breath. He half-rose out of bed, only to relax again, sinking back into the sober white sheets of his sister’s guest bed.
Harvey took another breath, this time letting it out slowly, and stared up at the ceiling tiles of the basement bedroom tying to decode the Rorschach design created by the brown water stains. Dusty grey light filtered in through the small, filmy window, barely disturbing the darkness that lingered in the corners of the room. The only items in the room aside from the metal bed, an ancient, chipped dresser, and a bedside table (equally old), were a few boxes filled with clothes and personal items. The boxes lay scattered about the room, one or two spewing their contents across the floor. Aside from these things, the room was bare.
Harvey slung his arm across the bed and groped along the nightstand for his glasses. In all respects, the glasses matched the side table: both were framed in heavy stainless steel surrounding thick, watery glass, and both had been out of fashion since the previous decade.
Harvey drew back the sheets and sat up, twisting his body until his back cracked loudly. He placed the heavy glasses on the bridge of his nose, taking comfort in the cool, familiar sensation of the nose pads. The glasses did nothing to make him handsomer than he was. At forty-two, his thinning hairline and errantly growing eyebrows corroborated the dated appearance of the spectacles to suggest that he had long since passed the zenith of his life, and was now making an ungraceful descent into obsolescence.
Harvey pulled on his navy housecoat – the one with the pocket that needed mending. He left the spare room and shuffled up the stairs.
Eleanor was already putting her warmest coat on over her hospital scrubs when Harvey reached the main floor. The puffy down-filled coat sought to pad the creases and corners that had made themselves more and more apparent in her face and body in the last few years.
“You’re up early,” she remarked as she continued her whirlwind course through the kitchen, leaving the faint scent of bleach and soap in her wake.
“Anything for breakfast?” Harvey returned.
“Make it yourself,” Eleanor said, “It’s not like you have anywhere to go.”
Harvey wandered over to the fridge, heaved open the heavy door, and peered into its depths, cold air spilling down onto his slippered feet. He pulled out some coffee leftover from the day before.
“And get the mail in, too,” Eleanor said, “I’ll be back at lunch.” She grabbed her car keys from where they hung beside the door and whisked her angular form out into the chilly air. The door closed with a confirming thud then opened again a second later. Eleanor stuck her hawk nose through the door and glared at Harvey. “And no smoking in the house!” she said. The door banged shut again and Eleanor was gone for the morning.
Harvey watched his sister’s retreating form through the kitchen window, drawing a steadying breath. When he was sure she was gone, he sat down at the kitchen table and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the frayed pocket of his housecoat. He lit one, and sat at the table for an hour, enjoying the slight nicotine rush while mentally lamenting that it wasn’t the same as it used to be—nothing was—not even for Eleanor.
Eleanor was younger by one year, but more sensible by five. She had been married for fifteen years before her husband succumbed to an illness of the drawn-out, cancerous kind — the kind that kills a person long before their heart stops beating. Eleanor had patiently sat by her husband’s bedside for the entirety of his illness, feeling strangely ineffectual despite her steady career as a nurse. The ordeal had left Eleanor drawn and tired as though it were she who had had the cancer.
Harvey, on the other hand, had never been married, nor had he ever been especially patient or sensible. His three semesters of college had yielded him nothing beyond a growing string of dead-end jobs, and unemployment had not been kind to him.
Harvey cracked open a beer, leftover coffee forgotten, as he moved on to the living room. There was nothing on TV at that time of day except for the soaps, since Eleanor refused to pay money for television she wasn’t going to watch. Harvey flicked through the three channels five or six times before settling on a station at random. He let the droning of the actors wash over him as he downed his beer. It would not be his last.
“Where’s the mail?” Eleanor asked immediately upon entering the house.
Harvey glanced at her, turned back to the television, and shrugged. Eleanor put her hands on her hips emphasizing the bony edges outlined by the fabric of her scrubs. Harvey pushed himself farther into the couch.
“I asked you to get the mail, and I told you not to stink up the house with your reeking cigarettes, and you didn’t do either!” Eleanor said, “Honestly, it’s like you don’t even care! You don’t have a job, you get, what? Five hundred on social security? And you’re in my house!”
“Calm down, Elly,” Harvey drawled.
Eleanor turned a vivid shade of strawberry.
“Get a job and get out of this house,” she said quietly and threateningly, “or I will personally throw you off the nearest bridge!”
Eleanor turned her back on Harvey’s smirk and stalked to the kitchen table. She grabbed the pack of cigarettes and marched them to the sink. Grinning, she emptied the pack into the drain and turned on the garburator. She stood, enjoying the grinding sound for a moment or two then flicked it off and proceeded to the door, turning back just before she left.
“And Harvey?” she called into the next room.
Harvey said nothing.
“Get the mail!” Eleanor punctuated the sentence by slamming the front door behind her.
“What about lunch?” Harvey yelled at the closed door.
Eleanor did not return until the sun had set. Harvey had fallen asleep on the sofa. The momentary rush of annoyance and anger from the encounter at lunch had faded away, leaving Eleanor as she was before. Eleanor was tired, and more than merely in her body.
Eleanor took several weary steps over to the sofa where her brother had fallen asleep, his glasses askew against the arm of the couch. She jostled his arm.
“Wake up,” she said wryly. “It’s time for bed.”
Harvey grunted and sat up, rubbing at his eyes.
“Did you take in the mail?” Eleanor asked him.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” Harvey mumbled.
Eleanor scoffed in disgust, and turning, slumped through the living room and up the stairs.
Harvey woke up. In all respects, the morning was exactly the same as the morning before. He put on his glasses, pulled on his worn housecoat, and shuffled up the stairs.
Eleanor had already gone to work. She had left a note on the kitchen table in bright red ink on a yellow sticky note. It read Go get the mail! followed by a string of exclamation points and underscored several times.
Harvey wandered over to the refrigerator. A few cans of beer still lay, neglected, on their sides. Harvey considered the beers for several long minutes, until the singular idea occurred to him to close the fridge door again. Before he did, he grabbed the egg carton off the shelf.
Harvey made himself some eggs—properly, with cheese and pepper. He sat down, contemplating the civility of the act as he ate them at the kitchen table with a fork. He glanced at the note again, but left it where it lay, turning his thoughts back to his eggs, his plate, and his fork.
When he had finished his eggs, Harvey glanced out the window. The morning sun was just breaking free of the last fingers of shredded winter clouds. The icicles that had hung over the window since autumn were beginning to drip. Harvey had the briefest flash of recollection: an image of himself as a boy catching drops on his tongue from melting icicles, his face turned up into the sun and his eye shut tight against the frigid splashes of water. Harvey turned back to the table where his sister’s note stared up at him like a condemnation.
Harvey went downstairs where he changed into a clean pair of pants—newer ones in fact, a pair he had purchased just before the demise of his latest work endeavor—and returned to the main floor. He put on his winter boots and his coat, and stepped outside.
A playful spring breeze skipped along the bare branches of the trees and tousled Harvey’s thinning hair as it splashed by. The deep drifts of snow, inert for months, were slowly shrinking into puddles on the cement, their edges heavy and darkened. Harvey unzippered his coat and turned his face up to the cool sunshine.
The mailbox was at the end of the street. Eleanor’s house was in the middle of the block, chosen specifically for its locations because, she had asserted, thieves were more likely to prey on the homes on the edges and corners of the streets. Harvey collected the mail and started back. The walk seemed much too short. He stopped in front of the pert little bungalow that belonged to his sister, glanced at the darkened front window, and decided it was too nice a day to spend inside.
Harvey entered the house only briefly. He left the letters and bills on the kitchen table, along with a note of his own: Out. Will be back soon.
He followed the message with a line of exclamation points, and underlined it several times – in red ink.
“Harvey, is that you?”
Harvey twisted around in the seat of the weight machine, glancing at the people around him one by one and trying to determine who had called him. He had visited the gym every day for a week now—something he hadn’t done since his university days—and was slowly beginning to feel more energetic, even bordering on ‘useful,’ although he wouldn’t go quite that far—yet.
A vaguely familiar man took several steps toward Harvey, an affable grin on the man’s face. He was tall, lean, and his dark hair was cropped close to his black-coffee skin.
“John?” Harvey asked in surprise. “From Centennial, right?” John wore a tan business coat and dark office slacks. A satchel hung over his shoulder.
“Mm-hm,” John agreed, nodding several times. “How’ve you been?”
“Uh, good, fine,” Harvey answered, slowly turning around in his seat to face the man, “How are you?”
“I’m good,” said John, “I’m in the fertilizer business now, striking out on my own. What about you?”
“Uh-umm,” Harvey stammered, “Oh, this and that—tried my hand a few things: sales, company reps, that kind of thing—sort of feeling my way around a little…” he trailed off.
“Really?” John asked, “You know, I’ve still got openings in the office. Marketing representatives. Sounds like maybe you have some experience in that area. “John deftly reached into his satchel and pulled out a small, grey card. He held it out to Harvey. “Here’s my card. It’d be great if you dropped off a resume or even just gave me a call. I could use more staff.”
Harvey blinked, staring at the card as though it might lunge forward and bite him if he moved. Several thoughts plowed into his mind all at once like high-speed electric trains. The first one he recognized was ‘don’t do it,’ closely followed by ‘don’t let this opportunity pass’. The thought that reconciled the other two was ‘you don’t have to call him, even if you take the card’.
“Ah, sure, sure,” Harvey said, slowly reaching for the card. It felt heavy in his hand when he took it.
“Excellent,” John said with a smile. “Gotta get back to the office but I’ll expect a call soon.” Harvey only nodded then watched John jog out the door of the gym.
Nearly a month later, Harvey pulled up in front of a non-descript office building in the developing part of the city. The front door was shiny—almost too shiny. The tinted exterior windows looked black and reflected light that bounced off shiny chrome panels then landed on the hood of Harvey’s dull yellow second-hand truck. Harvey considered the building, adjusted the buttons on his cuffs then shuffled the three or four pages in his satchel until he finally got up the nerve to get out of the truck. He made his way up to the building in halting steps coming face to face with the shiny doors. He hesitated, studying the doors until they whooshed to the sides, revealing the well-polished floor inside.
Harvey wandered over to the elevator and pressed the button. He waited for the doors to ring open.
“New here?” someone asked.
Harvey looked to his left to see another similarly overweight, middle-aged businessman dressed in business attire.
“Uh, yeah,” Harvey said, “I’m the new marketing guy. For Twin Peaks. Third floor.” He gestured upwards, just for good measure.
“Corry,” the man stuck out his hand. “Project manager, nice to meet you.”
Harvey shook the man’s hand uncertainly. The elevator reached the first floor and the doors opened with a welcoming ding. The two men got in.
“How about that Riders’ game?” Corry grinned.
“They failed so badly,” Harvey grinned back.
The elevator took them upwards.
The van was on the verge of giving out, its engine heaving a gasping idle at red lights as if it were trying to catch its breath. Harvey wasn’t surprised. The amount of snow on the ground and in the air would make a yeti turn around and run back inside. Harvey let out a sigh of relief as he pulled into the driveway of the small house.
Unloading the moving van was a job for two people—especially in this snow, but Harvey only had himself with him, so he made do. He pulled the few articles of furniture out of the cargo hold and dragged them across the snow-coated lawn, one by one. He stacked the things in the living room. By the time he was done, a mattress, a half-constructed bed frame, a desk, a table, and a handful of chairs and assorted furnishings had taken up haphazard residence in the main room.
The house was merely adequate, but Harvey was feeling cheerful enough to call it ‘snug’, or even ‘nice’. Truthfully, he could have stayed with his sister—goodness knows she could use the company—but it was awkward to have Corry over after work or to watch the game on the weekend. Besides, Harvey felt it would do him good to live by himself. This, he had told himself, was a step up.
Harvey burrowed through five boxes, searching for the items he needed. By the time he had gone through the fifth, he had, neatly arrayed on the counter, a coffee maker, a teaspoon, coffee, coffee filters, and a mug. Harvey smiled down at the items, recalling them from times previous when his life had run more smoothly. Harvey started the coffee maker and settled into the first chair he came across, which happened to be the armchair he had bought second-hand for his house warming. Harvey sat, enjoying a long-forgotten sense of accomplishment. He breathed it in like one breathes in the smell of still-warm, homemade bread.
The doorbell rang and Harvey started up. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but he wondered if his sister had followed him. Perhaps he had left something behind.
Harvey opened the door. It wasn’t his sister. A young woman with wavy brown hair and warm, deep eyes was waiting on the doorstep, pulling the collar of her coat together to shut out the wind. She was shivering slightly.
“Hi!” she said. She held out a paper plate laden with cookies and squares—the sticky kind that drip syrup. “I noticed you’d just moved in. I live next door,” she said, and nodded toward the next house over. Harvey glanced at the house. It was in need of painting and the steps were slightly crooked, but the walk was neatly shoveled (for now) and friendly yellow curtains could be seen in the window, held aside by a white ribbon.
Harvey took the plate. “I’m Harvey,” he said. He hesitated, glanced briefly at the woman’s eyes and quickly looked back down at the plate. “Would you … would you like to come in? I’m making coffee.”
“I don’t want to be a bother…” she said as she stepped inside and shut the door behind her. “I’m Jill,” she added with a slight shiver as she let loose her death-grip on the collar of her coat and unzipped it.
Harvey smiled at her and set down the plate. “Just toss your coat anywhere. I’ll get the coffee. Sugar?” Harvey asked.
“Yes please,” Jill said dropping her coat onto a chair before she followed Harvey into the kitchen.
Harvey looked at the scattered boxes. “It’s in one of these,” he said, frowning.
Jill looked at the boxes and laughed, the sound echoing against the bare kitchen walls then skipping down the hall. Harvey looked up at Jill and grinned. Together, they opened boxes and rummage through contents, setting out items until the sugar was found. They sat together, sipping coffee and sharing crookedly cut squares, heedless of the syrup dripping off them. Harvey thought he had never had a better cup of coffee.
Harvey straightened from his stooped position where he had been putting the finishing touches of paint on the lower border of Jill’s house. He reached to push his glasses further up onto the bridge of his nose. His finger almost missed the glasses, still not used to the position of the new frame. Jill rounded the corner of the house as Harvey stood, inspecting his handiwork.
“Okay,” she said cheerfully, “I’ve got the back wall done.”
“And I just finished the front,” Harvey said proudly. Jill looked down at the trim then up at the front of the house.
“Looks great,” she said. She turned to Harvey. “Thanks for helping me with this. I appreciate you donating a Saturday to give me a hand.”
“Glad to help,” Harvey replied easily and, in truth, he was very pleased to help. “I wasn’t busy anyway.” Jill cast Harvey a sideways glance.
“So … speaking of busy,” Jill paused then pushed forward, “what are you doing tomorrow?”
Harvey turned to look down at her already knowing that if she asked for more help he’d give it. “Nothing.” He stood waiting.
“Well, can I take you out for lunch—a sort of thank you for your help today?”
Harvey smiled. He nodded. “That’d be great.” Jill returned his smile.
It had been nearly three months since Harvey had moved out. He hadn’t seen his sister for that entire time. Finally, he resolved to visit her. It was nearly her birthday. He bought a card for her, tucked it in his pocket, and drove across town to her house.
Harvey pulled his car (an upgrade from his rusting truck) to a stop in front of Eleanor’s house and made his way up the walk. He rang the doorbell. It was noon and Harvey stood, anticipating his sister’s cooking.
Eleanor opened the door.
“Oh,” she said, “It’s you. I was wondering where you were.”
“What do you mean?” Harvey asked, “I thought you knew I was coming.”
“How would I know when you’d come back?” Eleanor turned her back and stalked into the house.
“Elly, are you alright?” Harvey asked, “I’m sorry if I’ve been away for too long, if that’s what’s bothering you.” Harvey followed his sister into the house.
Eleanor turned to him, frowning. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “You‘ve only been gone the morning.” She considered him for a brief moment, looking at him as though questioning his sanity. “Did you at least get the mail in all that time?” she finally asked.
Harvey looked over to the still-empty table. He looked down at his empty hands. He sighed heavily. “I’ll get it tomorrow,” he said defeatedly as he made his way to the fridge for a beer.