The third installment of my 2018 Ray Bradbury Challenge, in which I write a new short work of fiction every week, because, as Ray Bradbury once said, “it’s impossible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
HEAVEN, OR EARTH
by John Wolfe
Timothy McVay did love this part of his job. The being outside part. Especially right now, when it was autumn and the leaves swirled around his ankles and the air was just on the side of the line where he could still get away with wearing shorts (albeit with tall woolen socks), but it also had that certain fall crispness, sharp in the lungs like smoke from a wood fire, and the colors around him began their slow fade from summer green into booming golden red and, eventually, the cold pale gray of winter.
Timothy was a mailman, although he might have been something else altogether if he had had more opportunity in his life. Upon graduation from high school, he had been offered a partial academic scholarship to Northwestern, based on the merit of his SAT scores, but his parents hemmed and hawed and his mother pursed her lips over the remainder of the tuition and his father’s eyebrows furrowed at the astronomical cost of the textbooks – they were a waitress and a custodian, respectively, firmly working-class folk – so instead he went to work. As a carpenter’s assistant, first, until he was let go after his boss discovered, no matter how hard Timothy tried, that he couldn’t ever really build anything square. Then, for a few cheese-sodden years, he was a dishwasher at a greasy Mexican restaurant. And finally this job, which he had held now for nearly a decade. Timothy liked it well enough, although he often thought of what might have been, had he taken that scholarship. Perhaps he would have become a professor of astrophysics, like he had dreamed of as a boy, building scale models of the solar system for the science fair.
Rummaging through the old blue bag slung across his shoulder which held the post, he gathered the bundle which was to go in the box of Mrs. Julian Jones, an eccentric widower who insisted on being called by her late husband’s name (Mr. Julian Jones had been dead for eleven years). Even though he wasn’t really supposed to be nosy, he couldn’t help seeing everything that went into people’s boxes, just by the nature of his handling it. Mrs. Julian Jones, for instance, he had been surprised to find, kept up quite a correspondence with Playboy Magazine, and each month he was always rather embarrassed to open his bag and find a big-breasted, doe-eyed, mostly-unclothed woman staring seductively back at him, whom he always jammed hurriedly into the box for fear of being caught staring by some thin-lipped neighborhood spy peeping out the corner of their window. No magazine today, thank God, but surprisingly, for the first time in Timothy’s memory, Playboy had actually responded to one of her many letters. What they possibly could have to say to Mrs. Julian Jones, Timothy hadn’t the faintest idea. Perhaps it was a cease and desist. But there it was, all the same- not a form letter, either (‘Mrs. Julian Jones’ had been scrawled in blue ink by a neat hand, and for the return address there was a hand-drawn image in the same blue ink of the iconic silhouette of a bunny in a tux). Timothy dropped it into the box.
Next came the house of Rupert and Alena Rogers, a couple who for all the neighborhood looked like a perfectly happy pair, but whose dirty secret Timothy knew, having delivered the papers filing for divorce last week. Then was old Jon Hitchens, the postman who had retired off the route Timothy now walked. When he was home he often invited Timothy in for a coffee and a few minute’s chat and rest, but the lights were dark now and his car wasn’t there. The last house on the block before the street ended and the woods began was an old run-down bungalow that had been for sale for several years without any bites (Timothy had heard a rumor there was a crack in the foundation, and the termites had worked over most everything that was wooden, and a few things that weren’t). Timothy had always liked this house, but he couldn’t afford the repairs. In the bottom of his bag he was surprised to find a letter addressed to it. The letter was sealed in an envelope the color gold might become after a few cycles through the wash, and inscribed in neat calligraphy on its face was DR. TIMOTHY M. MCVAY, DEPT. OF ASTROPHYSICS, UNIV. N. COLLEGE. Timothy stopped mid-step. That was his name. That was his dream. He looked again at the house; for the first time there was a car in the driveway, a silver convertible of the type he had always coveted (he drove a beat-up old VW Rabbit which was, honestly, more rust than steel at this point). The light was on. Someone was home.
Timothy had to find out who this person was. He strode up to the front door as a ripple of wind stirred a pile of leaves under a shady sycamore tree in the front yard, and rang the doorbell. He didn’t hear any “ding- dong,” so he knocked, too.
The man who opened the door had bright blue eyes and a trimmed greying goatee, and a bit of stoop to his shoulders. Other than that, he and Timothy could have passed for brothers. “Yes?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Hello,” said Timothy, pausing to take in the strange resemblance. “I’m your mailman. My name is Timothy, too.”
“Greetings, Timothy Too,” said the man in the doorway. “I’m Tim McVay. Afraid I don’t have anything outgoing for you, though; we’ve just moved in over the week-end and I simply haven’t had time.”
“Oh- no no, that’s not it,” said Timothy the mailman. “I’ve got a letter for you.”
The man took it with a “thank you,” and held it up to the light to read the return address. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “It’s those boys from NASA wanting to know when I’d be available to come teach a course on the rotation of Venus. You didn’t hear it from me, but that’s where our nation’s spacecraft will be aiming next.”
“Really?” said Timothy.
“Off the record, off the record,” said McVay, waving his hand. He sighed. “More travel, I guess this means, more time away from home and family. Just when I’m trying to settle in, too. Well, hmm.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Timothy.
“Well.” said McVay. “Honestly, what I wouldn’t trade to have your job. Must be nice- out of doors all day, meeting the people who live around you. I spend most of my time alone in an office, crunching numbers. My health has suffered for it, I’m afraid.”
“That’s funny,” said Timothy. “When I was growing up I wanted to become an astrophysicist.”
“Really?” asked McVay. “Isn’t that a funny coincidence. What did you say your name was again, please?”
“Ah, yes! Of course! Timothy Too. Well, Timothy Too, sometime when I get back from Houston we’ll have to have you in for a cup of tea, and I can tell you about any planet you like in the Solar System, and you can tell me about this one.”
“I’d enjoy that.”
“As would I. Well, excuse me. Lots to unpack.”
“Nice to meet you, Timothy.”
Timothy turned and walked down the steps, his bag light and his mind heavy with wonder at what had just happened. He breathed deep of the autumn air and heard the leaves crunch beneath his feet, then paused to look up into the sky, where a pale moon hung, even though it was still afternoon. He looked over his shoulder at the old house with his strange counterpart cloistered inside. All the way home, he was trying to decide who had it better: Timothy Too, or Tim McVay.