The Value In Childhood Strangers

It’s always a cloudy day when Barry comes. The air is heavy and slow like when my mom cooks spaghetti. The long driveway to the park is rested- no cars have come in and no cars have come out. It’s just us today.

The clanks and screeches sound in time with the rainbow pattern of an empty merry-go-round that my brothers push with all four arms. Faster and faster they go until their limbs fly free at their hearts content and it goes ‘round and ‘round in an impossible flight- yet everything and everyone stays tethered together, there at the ground.

It’s about noon when his boxy truck arrives. The way we run to it, you’d swear there would be images of icy treats pasted to the side- but just the same, our minds are frost bitten at the sight of what the truck promises to deliver: some too-good-to-be-true shift into the radical. But it’s Barry. He is a quiet, peaceful man glad to be alive; glad to share his life. He drives the mail truck.

He rolls down his window and waves as he places his lunch in his lap. It’s always a very plain sandwich with not much on it, and maybe an apple. He pulls a shiny silver bag out- one his wife packed. We know that inside are the most delicious sweet and spicy barbecue chips and we eagerly wait for him to share. He always does. The bag used to be smaller… in a clear ziplock. Now it’s an entire sack. “Do you have kids, Barry?” my brother asks. “No, I don’t,” he says back. He smiles as he divvies out the chips into six small hands outside his truck. My mind wanders to the boxes of letters that must have been piled into the back just moments before save for a few stragglers carefully spotted before wrongful delivery. Birthday cards were my favorite to behold. Their brightly colored envelopes held the promise of exotic animals made more so with their shiny foil smiles. Oh, and maybe a crisp new bill; a symbol I could not always grasp but learned to find value in.

“Barry will you push us on the swings?!” my brothers ask. He follows us as we run to the swing set, all three of us without looking back. He takes turns pushing us higher and higher. I close one eye and point the toe of my sneaker at a tree, imagining my foot is touching the very top branch.

We trot after him when it’s time for him to go. He is somewhat a stranger; and while we know we can’t pull on his pant leg or throw ourselves at his feet, we grab onto that forged metal truck in our grief at his departure from us. My brothers hop on the shiny silver bumper, and I scale the side to see him get in, my arm thrown over the opening of its one window. “Barry can we please have a ride up the drive?!” I ask.

“I’m not supposed to let you inside, there aren’t enough seat belts, see?” he tells us. But something in him twists and contorts out from the red tape holding ordinance over us, the one doctoring us out of what is carefree, intuitively feels safe, or what simply for some unexplainable reason feels right. He climbs out the door and pulls the back open wide. Metal slats overlap and clink as it rises like a garage door. We huddle inside without a word as he closes us in and the light leaves that hollow box- only, we are brighter than before. He goes slowly up the drive, slower than the way we flung ourselves from the merry-go-round- but we all feel the same impossible flight.

That year, Barry made a Christmas card out to only us kids. An outpouring of cards came from families or friends we so seldom saw that my parents had to identify, ‘This is from So&so…” before proudly displaying them in the stairway. When they spotted a card from ‘The Mailman’ they almost chuckled. How silly it must have been for him to put his own card in the mail, knowing exactly where it was going and who would be delivering it- and yet, how purposeful. As my parents tore open boxes and gift baskets that season brought by the dexterity of his invisible hand, I thought about Barry, the man who knew when to let the red tape guide him but not bind him. We were surrogates to one another, surrogates of things we couldn’t have or keep, but I ripped down that Christmas card from the wall of trophies, and tucked it in my bed. I took my prize in knowing his intention, and held on to the only other priceless thing to travel in the back of a mail truck, besides us.

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