Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, Construction, Melange Press, Sport Literate, and is forthcoming in Compose. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.
Harvey: “My Burden Gladly Bearing”
I’m standing in the showers of my freshman dorm on registration day. Naked, vulnerable, soapy, and alone. There are twenty spigots mounted in regular intervals along the tiled walls of the rectangular bath. Nowhere to hide. A radio perched on a nearby sink plays a forgotten song as I wash my hair and anticipate a long day of placing myself in the right lines, the correct buildings, the most suitable foreign language class. Latin or Spanish? Such dilemmas, but at least they’re normal, straightforward.
Unlike the sound I hear now.
“All right!” With finger-snapping.
I open one eye. There’s a grown man standing in the shower doorway. I rinse quickly.
“All right!!!” He’s louder this time, and now that I can look at him clearly, I see he’s middle-aged in that way eighteen-year-olds have of perceiving anyone from thirty to sixty as middle-aged.
“All right!” His right finger is in the air, and he’s smiling broadly. I wish to God that I knew what to do, and I don’t want to think about what I might have to do.
But then my survival instinct kicks in.
“All right?” My voice is hesitant and shy.
And with that, he grins even more widely and exits the shower room, exposing me to my first taste of college life.
At lunch, I ask the guys at my table if I should report the pervert in my shower, and if so, to whom? The Dean of Men? Campus Police? The Bursar?
“I mean, other than staring at me for a while, he didn’t really do anything,” I say, my words belying all my shaken feelings.
“Wait a minute,” a seasoned sophomore named Rick says. “Don’t you know about Harvey?”
Do all institutions have their Harveys?
In my childhood, they were called “Buford” or “Elijah,” or maybe even “Harry Smith.” They cleaned up messes, were present from sunrise to sundown every day the doors of the school, church, or grocery store opened. In some cases, they wandered through nicer neighborhoods pushing popsicle or hot tamale carts.
In the worst cases, they just went walking. Holding a steering wheel taken from some rusted-out vehicle, they made puttering sounds and walked past your house on late July afternoons heading for distant highways that only they could see.
I never knew that particular “driver’s” name, where he stayed, who made him put down that steering wheel, or who calmed his motor at night.
“He’s just simple,” my grandmother would say. “But don’t go near him!”
Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t. Soon he vanished from the streets of my childhood, only to reappear during my high school years when my friends and I gathered at Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint. One Friday night, he came driving up in one of those mail carts, the single-occupant kind with both sides open so the carrier could hit right and left as he traversed the streets and country roads. On this night, though, we watched through Pasquale’s windows as there emerged from the zippy cart, not a mail-carrier, but the same “simple” man I had seen all those years before, only now he had donned what his tortured mind considered an official uniform: police-style cap; off-kilter tie, gun holster, and some kind of cardboard badge affixed to his formerly white trench coat. He looked sort of like me, actually, in those days when I pretended to be a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” On his cardboard badge someone had written in crayon-drawn script: “Protect of people. Doonot dissturb.” He carried a pipe as he wandered into Pasquale’s and took his seat at a front booth without ordering anything at the service counter.
After he had completed whatever business he had in this cheap Italian bistro, he exited as if he had another pressing assignment elsewhere, another locale to stake out. My group of friends and I didn’t hesitate. To a guy, we followed him outside, but much too closely. He heard us, saw us, and turned toward us. We got a good look at his eyes then: yellow, swollen, unsimple, and so very mad. And his teeth: ugly, misshapen, and few. He replaced his pipe in his front coat pocket.
He was looking at all of us.
“Arrest,” my friend Donnie asked. “For what?”
“Spicion” was right, for even an insane man can detect the sadistic nature of high school boys. Donnie started laughing then, as we all did.
And then, he pulled his gun on us.
Not since my days of playing Secret Agent had anyone pulled a gun on me. And no stranger ever had, especially not a stranger with swollen, yellow eyes.
Strangely, in that moment, I wondered again just who had outfitted this former steering wheel driver? His getup was part school crossing-guard, part garbage man, part military. Was one of us about to die at the hands of a man who had at best only a cloudy notion of who he was?
Our laughter evaporated into the night air, and all grew still as we fully absorbed this gun. We accepted that it was swiveling from heart to heart, and it seemed for a few seconds that although this wasn’t High Noon, one of us would have to move.
And then, one of us did. For after the surprise of that first, gun-drawn moment, we saw the gun for what it was. Not even a cap pistol, it was one of those toys that you might find packaged on the novelty aisle at the local Rexall. Donnie started running in widening circles, and while the rest of us laughed even louder, the “officer” pursued his quarry in similar circles around the parking lot of the pizza joint.
I left our ensemble then because I could, and while this evening made a good story to tell my parents on the following morning, I figured that was all it would ever be: a story, a laughing moment from my high school adventures. I never imagined then that I would continue seeing this simple man – that he and others like him would play a recurring role in my reflective life.
So when I really saw Harvey – saw him for what he was – I began wondering at my own circles: how I moved in them, in what order, and according to what time.
What are we supposed to do with life’s “simple” men?
What will it take, Harvey, to really make things all right?
He wasn’t a large man, maybe 5’6” tall, 180 pounds. But he was solid, even chunky. Rectangular. That’s the word I think of most when I see Harvey. Rectangular, thick-lensed glasses that seemed to distort his eyes into long, slitted openings. But instead of madness, Harvey’s eyes showed an innocence that gave him, I believe, a completely undistorted view of his world.
He cuffed his blue jeans in rectangles as neatly as I’ve ever seen. His pants size must have been 38 x 26, for his legs, sturdy and thick, looked like dwarf-legs, with his feet splayed out against the ground so that when he walked, he kind of bounced or hopped in a steady, rectangular rhythm. It’s as if his people danced polkas or Cossack high-steps somewhere in their glorious past. Or maybe they were all simple Appalachian buck dancers.
Harvey wore baggy flannel shirts in all seasons, well-tucked, and again, rectangularly folded at the elbows, showing off his massive forearms, though I’m sure Harvey never knew that showing off was an option. Each shirt, too, was checked, but sometimes when it turned too warm, he’d hang that shirt on a doorknob and finish mopping in his clean and tidy t-shirt. Then you’d see his biceps, rectangular muscles that came not from dumbbells, but from Harvey’s life.
In fact, the only part of him not rectangular was Harvey’s domed pate: a spectacularly bald top-head with gray-black stubbles around the lower sides. As I see it now, his head wasn’t so much shiny as it was glazed. But maybe it’s only my memory that’s glazed, searching for what it really shouldn’t remember.
Harvey wasn’t shy, so you’d hear him coming. His baritone voice would echo through the halls, singing the church hymns he loved. His voice, as I hear it now, reminds me of Andy Griffith’s – especially in that episode when Andy and Barney are sitting on the front porch in Mayberry early one Sunday evening, singing “The Church in the Wildwood”: “O come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, O come to the church in the dale. No place is as dear to my childhood, as the little brown church in the vale.” For Harvey’s voice, after you got used to it, was Mayberry-soothing. So soothing that you might go with him to his little brown church. If he ever asked.
He did his job well. Like the “white tornado,” the halls, bathrooms, and foyers, would be “Spic n’ Span” once Harvey finished. But even while he worked, he always made time to talk to the guys, his boys of Napier dorm. He never said “Hello,” or “How’s it goin’?” His greeting was the same, winter, spring, summer, or fall: “All Right!” Never a question, and never a statement of his own well-being, though you might presume that he was claiming to be “all right.” Not exactly a statement of environmental conditions either, because if it were going to rain or turn cold, Harvey would report on that after his greeting: “Rain coming later. Yep. Bring umbrella!” I don’t know if he kept up with the world via a farmer’s almanac on his bedside table, or if he listened to the morning reports on a kitchen radio. Maybe he posted a school calendar near his front door, or maybe he could tell the days and conditions just by the look of the world when he’d exit whatever front or side door contained him during the hours when he simply didn’t exist for the rest of us.
But whenever he was with us, Harvey was our internal register of all things external.
On Wednesdays, ubiquitously and forever, after “All Right,” came this: “Hump Day!” What did Hump Day mean to him? Did he long for Friday as we students did? How did he spend his off hours on those two weekend days, and were they as precious to him as they were to us?
Also, any day of the term, you could approach Harvey and ask, “Hey Harv, how many more days to winter break?” Without pause, Harvey would turn to you and announce, “53 more days,” or “22 more days,” or “7 more days.” And then he’d smile that rectangular grin as if he knew just what it was like for us to face research papers, 8 a.m. Algebra classes, or Thursday afternoon labs. Or final exams. Sometimes I’d see him as I was carrying my suitcases out to whatever ride I was getting home. “All right,” Harvey would shout, “Christmas is coming. Two more weeks!” And I’d shout back, “All right, Harv! Merry Christmas!” And that’s the last I’d think of him until after I returned to the dorm, weeks later, to see him sweeping the halls as usual. Like he had never left.
In those Alabama winters, Harvey would don a tweed sports jacket, one he’d surely worn for decades, and a houndstooth hat with a feather sticking out of its right-side band. I’d see him occasionally on his way to the cafeteria for lunch. When my friends and I first spotted that hat, bouncing along with Harvey up the main cobblestone street leading to the cafeteria, my friend Dan pointed at it and laughed: “Look at that!” We all laughed then, out of range of Harvey’s hearing. Or so I like to believe.
He’d make his way into the cafeteria and sit at one of the square tables in the center of us all. His tray would be full of chicken and mashed potatoes and Crowder peas and coleslaw and at least three rolls and four glasses of sweet milk. A piece of chocolate cake or cherry cobbler for dessert. He ate well for his $1.50, but he always ate alone.
I wonder now what Harvey thought about while he ate – what he observed about us, if he observed anything at all. I know he didn’t judge who we were, what we did, how much we left on our trays. I know he didn’t have such powers of discernment. But at least he never needed a steering wheel or makeshift badge to get on with his life. Above everything else, he just seemed happy: happy to eat; happy to hear us; happy to get back to work when his half-hour break was up.
In fact, I’m trying to remember now if I ever saw him unhappy. Did he grumble at the trash pile left for him at the end of hallways on Monday mornings? Did he groan at the state of the urinals, paper towels occasionally stuck in them? At the commodes which boys left slopped and stopped with their private business? Did he mind that the garbage dispenser in the bathroom doorway might contain anything? And I mean ANYTHING.
Lurking in the back of my mind is a scene in which Harvey is sweeping our hall. He’s angry, not smiling at all. In fact, there’s a sort of scowl on his face. What could be bothering him? Spoiled food containers? Puke in a urinal? Something scratched on the bathroom wall?
Or maybe he’s not feeling well. Maybe he has that horrible stomach bug I caught in the winter of my sophomore year. Guys were always marching off to the infirmary, leaving Harvey to disinfect whatever bacteria remained in their wake. He never wore a mask or gloves. And to my knowledge, he never missed a day of work.
But that’s the problem: my knowledge. So maybe I’m seeing an anger that wasn’t really there, just as after I moved out of Napier Hall in the middle of my junior year, Harvey quit being “there” for me, too. Oh, I’d see him in the cafeteria from time to time, especially when I made it for Sunday lunch. There he’d be in his Sunday coat and tie and matching slacks, houndstooth hat perched in its accustomed place. As usual, Harvey would be eating alone, and I could be wrong or wishful here, but his face seemed just a bit different on these Sundays. Just a bit beatific, which makes more sense now, given what I’ve learned about him.
But after lunch on those Sundays, practically right after I noticed him, my mind and body would move into a different rhythm, a higher circle, and one that never had space or calling for Harvey. I forgot him as quickly as I dumped my tray in its proper receptacle.
We assume so much about the people on the periphery of our lives. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe we don’t assume anything at all. Did I really never wonder back then, back in my liberal college days, what his home life was like? If he lived alone or with his people? With any people? Was his place an old family home, an apartment in a duplex south of town? A room over a hardware store?
Did he “go home” for Christmas like I did?
Unlike that steering-wheel man from my hometown, Harvey didn’t live entirely in his own fantasies. He carried with him, was guided by, the weight of his responsibilities for cleaning our dorm. Of course, he could guide himself only so far. I wonder who got him the job at the college? Who paid his bills? Did he foresee the day when he’d have to retire? Did he daydream, and what were his night dreams like? Did he ever wake up in a panic? Did he know what to do for a fever? Did he think about sex? Did he even know what it was?
Who took care of him when everything wasn’t all right?
Not that these questions plagued me in the immediate years after I graduated. I’m sure I saw other “Harveys” roaming the streets of my grad school campus and in the towns I moved to after that. But I never lived in a dorm after college, and in my pursuit of a doctorate and then a teaching position, I was much too focused on Faulkner seminars and detailed resumes to worry about the hallways and bathrooms of my institutional life.
After all, I was a well-adjusted, normally self-absorbed young man.
Sometimes on TV, a Harvey-figure would steer himself into my periphery. One of the best was “Benny,” the mildly retarded errand clerk in the hospital of “St. Elsewhere,” back in the 1990’s. Benny’s troubles sometimes seemed almost normal. And he was always endearing. But Benny couldn’t do Harvey justice. Harvey wasn’t an invention. Nor was he a stock character, a cliché. For Harvey wouldn’t have known what a cliché was, though in reality, he saw plenty of us walking, and showering, around him every weekday. Plenty of us who’ve forgotten, or maybe never even noticed this man and what he did for us every weekday. What he bore, and what we didn’t.
Harvey died on January 31, 2005. I don’t know if he died alone, in a hospital, or where, because the obituaries don’t say. He was survived by his sister, his nephew, and by “a host of friends.” That makes me feel a bit better, but I keep wondering: were they there when he died? Or before? Did anyone explain to him what was happening? Did he understand that his body was wearing out? Did he ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night wondering why he felt the way he did: not as strong, not as able?
Did he ever stop saying “All Right?”
I hate to imagine his eyes roaming the walls of his room, unable to comprehend what he was seeing or wasn’t seeing. I hate to think of him crying out in the night for comfort, for calming, for the pain to go away. For someone to hold him.
I hate to imagine all of these scenes, but I do. I can’t help it. Because Harvey cleaned up after me for several years, and he never said an unkind word to me. And he saw me naked. There aren’t many, or even any, others whom I can say this about.
Sometimes what seems so simple is the most complex and troubling thing in the world. I don’t pretend to have the answers, or the right questions regarding my own doubts about this world and what, if anything, comes after. Of course, many people have told me that believing in God or not is a simple choice. In fact, one day in my college cafeteria, maybe even near where Harvey was sitting, a guy I knew from our Social Work classes together casually approached me:
“Terry, you know your eternal fate lies in whether you’ll be going to Heaven or Hell,” he advised.
“You know Mike, I just don’t believe that a loving God would consign anyone, especially not well-intentioned doubters, to a fiery hell. Or any place like that.”
“But Terry, where’s your faith?”
“My faith in hell?”
“In God’s plan!”
“I guess when it comes to believing in hell, I just don’t have that kind of faith.”
“Well. GOODBYE!” He didn’t mean “See you later” either.
But it’s a strange thing to me, and even more troubling, that neither he nor I, none of us – believers, non-believers, doubters – took any time to see Harvey when we had the chance. To find out about his life. To help him if we could, or even to make life just a bit easier for him. But here I am assuming again that somehow, his life wasn’t all right.
Just like I’ve always assumed that mine is.
But here is something that gives me comfort on the nights when I lay in bed thinking about Harvey: in a 2009 article in the Shelby County Reporter – home county and paper of my college – a gathering of the Montevallo High School class of 1945 remembered their fallen friends. Friends like Harvey Lee Riffe, who “read the devotional almost every morning” and whose strong voice captured the essence of that great hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” for which he “sang his soul” on Sundays.
Harvey was born on January 5, 1923, and is buried in Shady Grove cemetery, in Bibb County, which, I assume, is his home county. That sounds like such a peaceful ending.
And one more thing. From what I’ve read and from what I remember, I am sure that whatever else Harvey did or did not understand about life or the intricacies of Scripture, he believed in God, in Jesus Christ.
While I myself understand so little.
“How Great Thou Art” was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. She was a devoted Christian woman, too. But I didn’t follow her religious path. I attended her church for many years; however, I never accepted Jesus as my savior. And even today, if I believe in God, it’s not the one that governs my Christian or my Jewish family.
Like my Christian grandmother, toward the end of her life my Jewish grandmother began praying to her God, and then urging my father to go back to synagogue, which he did. Now, I believe that when I envisioned Harvey lying alone in bed, sick, dying, and unable to comprehend himself and maybe not even his Maker, I was thinking of my Dad in the last year of his life, when he was becoming more and more incontinent, saying his nightly prayers; being helped into bed by my Mom and me, tremors in his arm and leg from Parkinson’s palsy. I felt glad in those moments that he was safely in bed – that my mother could still tend to him. That maybe he could forget about, or relax from, his own dementia for that night at least.
Did God watch over him? Did God allow him to suffer? I don’t know, but from down the hallway, I could hear his murmuring prayers. Did he believe in God despite what was happening to him – the God that had allowed or even caused it to happen to him? And if God was truly taking care of my father, I wonder where that leaves me? What will God do with me in the failing light of whatever last space I’m in?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I still don’t share my father’s faith. Yet, I’m happy that he had it during his last days if it gave him comfort. I say “if” because I saw my father’s eyes before he lost consciousness for good. They were restless and wild. Some might even have called them “mad.” But then I can’t really know what my father was seeing as he lay in his hospice bed. When his eyes did close in his last hours, he looked at peace. When I whispered to him that he could go now, that everything would be all right, I believe that my words gave him comfort. And for that, I am deeply happy.
Just as I am deeply happy that throughout his life, including, I hope, his end, Harvey thought his God was great. That he believed in Jesus. And that his body and mind are at rest.
All right Harvey, while I’ll always remember you, I can set you down now, gladly, and leave both you, and me, in the quiet and peace of our fathers.