A short story by Trevor Toop
Carleton’s clothes did not exactly fit. They clung oddly to the bulgy hips and pudgy midriff, which had started to gather somewhere approaching middle age. They did however, perfectly suit a man who was somewhat hidden to outer perception, one that existed partially in hope and partially in memory, but mostly in the past. The decades had crept up like an unspoken question that hovered over Carton’s head, whether he had peaked early, or to some estimations, whether he had peaked at all.
Carleton was a delivery man. Though this somewhat prosaic work paid the bills, it was far from the personal prospects he had envisioned while still a twenty-something student at Bible College, with his notions of life still trapped in a state of grace.
Carleton’s world was a constellation of favours gleaned from various parishioners at Church. Through them, he had scraped together a used car that someone no longer needed, a discount cottage kit that he had improved in dribs and drabs with a hammer and some optimistic guesswork, and other various amenities cobbled into a life for himself, his wife, and three kids. His job as a delivery man was one of those favours, and like the cat with nine lives, those who extended their goodwill often wondered, just when Carleton’s luck would run out.
Carleton put together orders for school supplies - pads, paper, pens and spiral exercise books that like himself were untarnished and packed with promise when they first went out the door expecting high marks. His existence at Rob Mercer Wholesale was a source of levity for the other workers, they joked about him when he was out of sight, and they joked about him when he re-appeared.
Dave, a tall Englishman with a cockney accent ribbed his co-worker when he saw Carleton venture through the door in the morning in white pants that were just a tad short on the legs.
“Hey Carleton,” he called out. “Elvis called and he wants his pants back”. Carleton not quite hearing correctly, smiled and waved awkwardly across the room in salutation. “Hey Carleton” Bert enjoined. “I saw your MOM last night and she says hi”. Both he and Dave sniggered as they packed up another box. Carleton looked awkwardly puzzled for a moment, suspecting he was being mocked, but not quite getting the joke just the same. Carleton had a standing date every Wednesday night, with an older woman who was not his wife, that date being his aging mother, whom Carleton would inevitably refer to with a tear in his eye. “My mom,” he would ponder aloud, “She gave life to me”.
Wednesday evenings he would arrive at his childhood home, drink tea on the porch and listen to the latest neighbourhood gossip, then go upstairs to inspect his model airplane collection, which like him, was frozen in 1970 still waiting to launch. His mom would fix one of his favourite meals like fries with gravy and they would watch Hee-Haw on TV, before he would hop into his beat up car and return home.
His wife… got the other six date nights of the week, yet somehow she did not feel as besotted as Carleton’s mother. There was a yearning that flashed across her memory for what WAS, if only for a brief portion of time. In Bible College, Carleton had seemed to fit just a bit more with his surroundings. His pompadour haircut and long sideburns had seemed just a touch daring, and Carleton’s fealty toward his mom, she saw as endearing. She had said yes during a mission trip to Africa, when Carleton had produced the tiny diamond ring nervously one Friday night in the chapel. Their lives together had unfolded with a measure of shoehorning behind the scenes on her part, and a lot of smiling graciously in public whenever people gazed intently at her, as if wondering about things that they might not voice aloud. It’s not that she had any particular problem with Carleton; he seemed to sail through life with a boy scout’s kind of intentions. He faithfully did dishes. And unfortunately, Carleton was a perfect gentleman, even in bed.
And then there was Rob, Carleton’s boss. He knew that he was going to close shop one day and that Carleton would be out of a job. Oh Carleton! Always a dollar short and a day late. Rob remembered when Carleton had become their youth pastor. He had never galvanized as the role model teens would aspire to be, so his intended career fizzled, and he never rose in the ranks. His meagre stipend in this role was not enough once the babies started to appear, and Rob with a poke in the ribs from his wife, had offered the delivery job. He fantasized some days, about just how much he would like to fire Carleton, because Carleton was a failed prospect who would inexplicably disappear while on delivery for hours on end. Rob wondered what kind of driver could get lost, every single day.
“Hey Carleton” gushed Dave from the packing table. Me and Bert is going out to get some pie this Friday night. Some CHERRY pie. You like us to get you some?” He sniggered and ribbed his colleague. Carleton as ever, opened his mouth and did not seem to know exactly what to say. “Yeah” said Bert. “But Dave, I think Carleton’s got his OWN cherry pie going on at home, after all he has three kids.” “Well,” said Dave, “I was just thinking that a man’s somewhere’s got to have a bit of STRANGE cherry pie OUT of the house, so as he don’t get too bored….. What do you say Carleton? A little extra cherry pie on the side? We gets ours at the King George Hotel, they seems to have the BEST cherry pie in town”. He winked at Bert as they waited for Carleton to respond.
But Carleton had other things on his mind. He had a secret, or more accurately, a secret identity - one that only surfaced on the job. Looking vaguely like Elvis on the wane, he donned his sunglasses, turned over the ignition, and backed the truck purposefully out of the parking lot as a pilgrim in search of a place yearned for but not yet realized. On the way out, he drove past a known speed trap, and Carleton went extra slow just to be sure, while the cop behind the pylon lowered his radar gun and grimaced.
Carleton was an anomaly, and not just for the reasons most commonly cited by his detractors. Some when faced with the buffeting of the world, might retreat into inoffensive conformity, but Carleton on the other hand, remained replete in his unvarnished ways. “After all,” he said to himself, “I must be about my Father’s business.” It was a beautiful day. The sky was azure, the clouds like cotton candy, and there was just the hint of a breeze to cool things off. Carleton repeated his own credo, “To bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the lost.” He felt a surging hunger to set the world aright, as though the very rocks would cry out if he held in his longing.
The day started out with somewhat meagre prospects. He stopped to pick up a wounded squirrel from the ditch, which seemed to have played chicken with a car and lost. He dropped this unfortunate off at an animal shelter, nursed the bite on his hand, and continued on his way. As he passed Food City, he saw an elderly matron encumbered with two ungainly grocery bags that looked as if they might get away at any moment. Carleton stopped and declared solemnly, “Don’t fear madam, I am here to help you”. “You from the taxi company?” the old woman squinted sceptically. “Well at least they didn’t send one of those BROWN ones”. She eyeballed Carleton as he eased her up into the passenger cab and proceeded to her address. “Put away your wallet ma’am,” he had declared magnanimously upon arrival. “Your delivery is free today”. The old woman pulled back her arm when Carleton reached out his hand to help her down from the cab. “Always looking for a tip!” she declared to herself as she fumbled for her front door key.
Down the road, he saw a young girl with too short a skirt, hitchhiking. “Where are you headed, dear?” he enquired, as she spit her gum out and hopped up into the seat beside him. “I’m headed wherever you want to take me” she grinned knowingly. She knew Carleton’s type, they were the best customers because they were fatherly, and always stopped it seemed, with the best of intentions. At her direction, Carleton proceeded to the back alley of a truck stop on the outskirts of town, and when Carleton turned to her in the dim interior, she was surprised to find a twenty-dollar bill in her hand. “Go get yourself something to eat dear”, he had offered cheerily, as he leaned over to open the cab door. The girl paused, surprised, then smiled to herself. “Guilty conscience”, she mused. “He’s like the ones who pay to talk.” She hiked up her skirt, and proceeded into the truck stop, where she positioned herself on a stool beside a hungry looking trucker.
Carleton then remembered his delivery. It was for a little country school outside of town. He headed the truck out toward the outskirts, tall grass and roadside weeds, waving hosannas as he passed by. Carleton suddenly spotted a plume of black smoke rising in his right periphery vision, and he quickly turned the van up a long laneway to a diminutive farmhouse, which seemed to be on fire.
The screen door was ajar, and when Carleton nudged it open to the kitchen, he saw a thick veil of smoke pouring forth from the oven and the cupboards in flame. “Hello, HELLO?” he called, and then glimpsed the prostrate form of a young woman with straw blond hair and bare feet, sprawled in the hallway. She seemed to be breathing in a laboured way, and from the bulge beneath her cornflower apron, it seemed that she was indeed ‘in the family way’. Without pausing, Carleton quickly scooped her up like a rag doll, and, choking through the thick smog, ran outside and nestled the young woman into the fragrant stalks of green grass. “Help me” she whispered. “My baby, it’s coming early”. Carleton did not quite know what to do, so he ran to the van to see what he could find, and came back with a packing blanket, which he spread out on the yard. He gently lifted the young woman, and held her hand, though terrified himself. Carleton did not need instruction, because nature it seemed was doing her own work. The woman’s face twisted in a labour spasm, and prying her white-knuckle grip from his forearm, Carleton ran to get a bottle of water from the van and lifted it to her lips. Fifteen minutes of screaming and pushing on the young woman’s part left Carleton looking more ashen than his patient, but soon a tiny infant tumbled wailing, into Carleton’s hands. Trembling, he lifted the wriggling and slippery child to the eager arms of his mother, and ran to bring another blanket from the van. He looked at the blood on his hands, and was suddenly terrified by the determined force of life which thrust its way into the world without pausing for permission.
And then he remembered his delivery. Carleton was sure that he was in trouble. He bent down over the girl, and told her. “Don’t worry honey, someone is coming to help you”. Without quite understanding why, he leaned over and gently kissed the young woman on the forehead like a tender lover. He gingerly wrapped the edges of the blanket around the baby, though the young woman who was both crying and laughing, did not seem to notice Carleton much at all. “It’s a boy” she noted in wonder. “He has his father’s eyes”.
Carleton pulled off, and when he came close to the edge of town, he jumped down and ran to a lone pay phone where he anonymously called in the fire, declining to give his name. As he maneuvered the van back in the direction of the shop, he started to weep, but not from fear. Carleton was weeping for the beauty and the pain, which seemed to bloom midst the fury of life like a gift that we do not know how to hold. He cried for his mother who had given him life, and for his own daughters presented in like manner, gazing up at him as if they already carried all the secrets of the world. Like a midwife he counted, weighed and named all the raw moments of life that had surged slippery, through his grasp, cradled but for a moment, and he wept out of unabashed wonder.
At the wholesale shop, Dave nudged Bert as they saw the delivery van pull into the drive. “CARLETON” barked out Rob, as he entered the door. “Friggin’ pussy” said Bert, “lookit ‘im, he’s crying”. “Yeah, gig’s up now”, Dave ventured. “Maybe Rob will fire his sorry ass after all”.
The next day, it was reported on the back page of the local newspaper, that a young woman had narrowly escaped from her burning home, and had courageously delivered her own baby in the front yard. It was noted that the young woman had been discovered, delirious by the authorities who arrived. “She was in a state of shock” one paramedic surmised. “Said that Elvis had delivered her baby, or maybe it was an angel”. The paper cited an expert psychologist who labeled this response, as “projection”, what one WISHES would happen while in a state of mental shock. “Elvis might be the missing figure of a father who didn’t come through,” she had proclaimed smugly, while the reporters all took careful notes. “A nostalgia for that old-fashioned kind of valour that doesn’t exist in the real world anymore. Mother and child are doing just fine. Baby was six pounds, one ounce.”
Life rushed on in its usual hum, a few noticed the small sidebar in the back of the paper, as it quickly became yesterday’s news. It did draw the attention of the National Enquirer while on the news feed. One writer noted, that it might be time to do another article about an Elvis sighting, and chuckled to himself that he would not even require the aid of Photoshop to lend the story more credence. “It’s like you don’t even have to make this stuff up,” he chuckled. People are so desperately naive - they are willing to believe anything!”