A small man in a small world
December 30, 2012
I’ve written several short pieces about Mr. Harvey. I love this character. He is a small man in a small world always trying to portray himself in the most flattering and heroic stances. Mr. Harvey reminds me of Don Knotts in the Andy Griffin Show.
This story comes from my mss The Graveyard Shift, the third in a series of books of short stories.
THE ONE ARMED MAN SPOKE GERMAN
Mr. Harvey, a middle-aged balding man was sitting in a chair in the corner of the small waiting room. Like a caterpillar. In a classic children’s tale. Of a doctor’s clinic. In the back of the drug store. Where they kept the cotton swabs. Sweating. Feeling that he might like to kick the bucket. At any moment. And every time he thought of his name appearing in the obituary column, it was misspelled.
There was a kid beside him lost in a crossword puzzle and peeing his pants. His blue jeans were getting darker and the smell was making Mr. Harvey nauseous. And he wondered if the kid shouldn’t be out someplace playing in traffic. Mr. Harvey leaned over and noticed that all the kid needed was one more word to finish.
“Paper Moon,” Mr. Harvey said. He loved Tatum O’Neal. Heard that at Farrah Fawcett’s funeral, Ryan had come onto her. And he loved Elle Fitzgerald’s version of the song. Tatum certainly wouldn’t have sat on a waiting room floor peeing her pants. Since she seldom wore a dress. And was what they called a Tom. Like she was a cat. Or a turkey. Or something you kept stuck in your mouth until the anxiety left.
The kid looked up with a disappointed look on his face. The kid’s mother was listening to an Ipod. It was loud enough to hear the music.
The congregation sensed it and they knew what he meant.
My text today is you sinners must repent.
Who threw the whiskey in the well?
The kid tugged at his mother’s arm and whispered in her ear. It wasn’t something spiritual and in all likelihood had something to do with Mr. Harvey’s wandering hands. After she, the mother, had unplugged, the woman gave Mr. Harvey a dirty look and escorted her son to the washroom. On the way the kid turned back to Mr. Harvey and stuck out his tongue. Mr. Harvey reciprocated, although he was surprised that he was up to the refrain, having forgotten if only briefly, why he was there and where he was headed.
The doctor stepped into the room looking at a form on his clipboard. He looked around. He had the arrogant effluent appearance of a maitre d’ at an expensive restaurant.
“Harvey?” he cried.
Mr. Harvey raised his hand and approached the doctor. The doctor, nattily dressed in a shirt and tie and plaid jacket, put his arm around Mr. Harvey’s shoulder and escorted him to a small room.
“You think you’re having a stroke, Mr. Harvey?” the doctor said reading the form on the clipboard. He picked a blackhead on the tip of his nose, almost without thinking, as if it was a weekly chore.
Mr. Harvey nodded, looking up at the doctor through his glasses. His vision was still blurred. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Is that a symptom?
The doctor took the patient’s wrist and listened to his pulse. As if Mr. Harvey was a radio. And he was looking for some classical jazz. He asked Mr. Harvey to take his shirt off. The doctor listened to his heart, which from Mr. Harvey’s point of view, was pounding like the alien in its human host. Ready to explode out of its cage, Mr. Harvey’s ribs.
“Everything sounds okay,” the doctor said. “Of course we’ll take a blood test and an ECG to be on the safe side. But tell me, Mr. Harvey, why do you think you’re having a stroke?”
Mr. Harvey put his shirt back on. He couldn’t see the buttons. Knew that he was going to misbutton. Is that a word? He couldn’t spell either.
“I don’t want you to think that I’m one of those people who goes crying to a doctor every time a muscle flinches. You shouldn’t go to a doctor every time you have a flinch, right?”
The doctor smiled.
“It depends on the flinch.”
“Oh,” Mr. Harvey responded and then seemed lost in his own thoughts for a few moments. Visions of his mother scolding him after he had scraped a knee, flirted with his attention.
“Mr. Harvey?” the doctor enquired.
Mr. Harvey looked up. “Oh, yes,” he said remembering where he had left off. “I’ve seen death, doctor. Been as close to it as you are to me. Smelled his breath. So I know what I am talking about.”
The doctor nodded appreciatively, his eyes focused on his black head.
“Last summer, “ Mr. Harvey continued, “I went to Cuba. For the sun. I almost drowned. Pulled out to sea by an undertow. And then dragged down. I saw the underworld, doctor. All the floors of Dante’s inferno. Hell, doctor, is a shopping mall. That’s what it’s like. I thought I had been designated to a Goodwill store. But then a hand reached out to me like a miracle. A hand like the hand of God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I was pulled out of the froth by a German. Nice fellow. Thick accent. My savior. My savior only had one arm. Lost the other arm in an industrial accident. Or maybe he was in such a hurry to save me, that he left it on the cross. I washed his feet. I was that grateful. Of course it wasn’t necessary since we’d both just gotten out of the sea. But I felt that the gesture was appreciated.”
The doctor smiled. “And today?”
Mr. Harvey smiled. “Patience, doctor.”
The doctor looked at his watch. “Of course. Continue.”
“It’s more than one incident,” Mr. Harvey continued. “I was skiing at Mt. Tremblant. North of Montreal. I’m not much of a skier but I went for the air. One morning I went out for my constitutional walk. It’s important to get exercise every day. Well, I wasn’t looking where I was walking and fell through a snow bank. And stopped. And when I looked down I saw that I was hanging over a precipice. Death was looking up at me. With its mouth open. Like in a Spielberg film. My arms were stretched out like Christ on a cross. And it was all that was holding me there. And the next moment I was grabbed by a fellow and dragged back into this world.”
“And your rescuer only had one arm,” the doctor suggested.
Mr. Harvey shook his head. “But he was German. And once again I had looked into death. Two strikes. You see what I mean, doc. I’ve got one more strike coming.”
“And this is your heart attack?” the doctor asked.
Mr. Harvey nodded.
“Can you be more explicit?” the doctor asked.
“I’ve been watching those ads.”
“Those ads?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, doc. The ads about strokes. About the warnings of a stroke. Sweating. Blurred vision. You see, I’d been playing hockey. We play every Friday. It was a particularly tiring game. I was exhausted. Legs cramping. Trying to keep up with the kids on the team. These 20 year olds think that Friday night hockey is the NHL. Fighting for every puck. I was really having trouble after the game getting my breath back. And then I noticed, sitting in the dressing room, after I got dressed, that my vision was blurry. I remembered the ads. The stroke ads. I thought it would go away. The blurred vision. I was driving to the pub after the game to have a drink but the blurring wasn’t going away.”
“You thought you were having a stroke and you drove to a bar?” the doctor asked.
“It’s a tradition,” Mr. Harvey said. “We always have a few pops after the game. Talk. About the beauty of our passes, and the glory of our goals, and an assortment of other lies. About work. About women. Some of the fellows are having marital problems.”
“And the blurring continued in the bar?” the doctor asked.
Mr. Harvey smiled. “That’s right. Even after a couple of beers. So I thought I’d better get to a clinic. Just to be on the safe side.”
The doctor stared at Mr. Harvey.
“And your vision is still blurry?”
Mr. Harvey nodded.
The doctor reached out toward Mr. Harvey and took Mr. Harvey’s glasses off. Showing the glasses to Mr. Harvey, the doctor put his finger through a space where there should have been a lens.
Mr. Harvey blushed.
“Your lens fell out,” the doctor said. “That I think explains the blurred vision.”
“Then I’m not having a heart attack,” Mr. Harvey said.
The doctor shook his head. “I’ll send the nurse in to take some blood and get an ECG. But, I shouldn’t think so.”
Mr. Harvey smiled. Embarrassed. “Oh, my.”
The doctor turned to leave.
“Doc,” Mr. Harvey said.
The doctor turned around.
“You wouldn’t happen to be German, would you?” Mr. Harvey asked.
The doctor shook his head. “Lebanese.”