Larry of Arabia and the Rest of the Gang

When did it start? A feeling that you’ve seen that face before. You recognize his jacket, the one you see him wear every morning, the same scotch plaid. Or her light green scarf, how she always ties it tightly around her chin. Or how one woman turns her face away and looks down whenever you near, until one day last week when you noticed that there, at the corner of her lips, was a slight upturn of the mouth. Yes, she was smiling at you, ever so faintly.

You remember seeing him or her on Monday. Or Tuesday? The sea was blue-striped from the shore to the horizon; what the surfers call “a corduroy sea.” You were where you are every morning since retirement, walking along the beach promenade, for if there’s one thing that can be said about you it’s that you’re as regular as the mail, though there’s nothing regular about the postal service these days.

Your new mailman wears little that would identify him as an official postal worker. You’ve seen him slowly lumbering out of his mail truck, wearing a faded black T-shirt, carrying that hefty mailbag like he’s carrying the weight of the world. That’s what you whispered to yourself when you first saw him: “weight of the world, weight of the world.”

Last week, he knocked on the front door and asked if he could use the bathroom. Your wife let him in and directed him to the bathroom where he did his business, which wasn’t official business now, was it.

A week after the bathroom incident you pulled into the driveway as he was shoving mail into the mail slot. You’d been trying to evade him, to leave the house when you thought he’d be delivering the mail but had miscalculated. You exited the car, nodded in his direction and reached for the front door. That’s when he said, “I’m tired. So very tired. This is a hard, hard job.”

In that moment you realized he hated being a postman, hated walking around with that heavy sack, what with the back aches and growly dogs and the looks on peoples’ faces when they didn’t find the letter they were hoping for, knew for him none of it was worth the salary and the pension and the ability to walk around without some boss breathing down his neck.

Since that day, he barely nods your way. Why are you spending your time worrying about the postman when you’d rather be at the beach, seeing the man in the plaid jacket, the woman with the slight smile?  You are always heartened by the “good morning,” the “hey there,” the small comment on the weather. Or when you see an older woman with a cane and a WW2 hat, who lifts her cane up off the cement a couple inches as hello. Or the man with Alzheimer’s who remembers you one day and not the next, who, when you asked him the name of the feral cat he feeds replied, “Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t told me yet.”

These regulars have become your gang but there are the others you’re not quite sure you want to know: The gray-haired woman who is way too smiley, too friendly, who, once you opened the floodgate, wanted to tell you all about her world of woe. Now you cross the street when you see her coming, quickly wave and act in a hurry, as if you’ve got to get to work.

As if you’re still going to work. And immediately you feel like an awful person, for she’s the one who once said of you and your wife, “You two look so happy together. You’re the epitome of Yabba Dabba Doo.” You laughed out loud when she said that and thought of your cartoon hero, Fred Flintstone.

‘You feel strangely content, even a little giddy. A man you don’t know said, “Happy Day” to you as if it were a statement of fact.’

Today, you’re at the beach at noon. You had a rough night, tossing and turning like those corduroy waves. Yesterday, out of nowhere, a memory returned of a set-to you had with your boss years ago. Ever since you’ve been replaying what happened in your mind, stewing over it and before you could say abracadabra a floodgate opened and in rushed all the past set-tos in your work world.

You fear you’re in danger of becoming the woman you see at the beach who is full of woe or, like the postman, who hates his job—weight of the world, weight of the world. You wish you’d had the guts your immigrant grandmother showed when dealing with a stinky neighbor. She stepped right up to the neighbor’s fence one day and said, “You no bother me, I no bother you.”

The sun is up, high in the sky, the ocean, too, in high form. You begin your walk and each step along the beach boardwalk, each breath of sea air, you start to leave worry behind. You pick up the pace, start swinging your arms. Just when you’re about to speed pass the pier, you see him, sitting on the cement bench outside the Chit Chat Cafe.

He’s one of the oddballs. And a big time walker. You’ve seen him near the Safeway, over by the high school, miles from the sea. It’s easy to spot him from a distance what with his headgear. He always places a large white dishcloth over his head that hangs down and covers his ears and neck. On top of the cloth he wears a dingy white baseball cap. It’s the poor man’s Lawrence of Arabia look.

You’ve never bothered to get to know him. He’s a little strange, isn’t he, like that mailman. You hope your wife has the sense to not answer the door today. Here he is, sitting all alone, taking a rest from his peripatetic wanderings. Today, for some reason, you don’t turn away. You look him straight in the eye and for a moment hold his gaze. That’s when he says clearly, loud enough for you to hear, “Happy Day.”

You jump. You’ve never said two words to each other. You need to say something. “Yes, it is!” or “And to you, kind sir!” but your tongue twists around in your mouth, and you blurt out, “Do ba do ba,” and he nods his head like he understands you implicitly.

You feel like a fool so you put your head down and keep walking. With each step his words echo in your ears. Happy Day. Happy Day. Does he truly believe today, this particular day, is a happy day or does he say this every day to every person he meets? The sea disappears, as does the sky, all you can do is think of this man you don’t know saying “Happy Day.” Then you remember the recording of that choir singing “Oh Happy Day” in the ’70s, how, during a bad stretch in high school, you’d wait for that song to come on the radio. It was the only thing that lifted you from the deep nihilistic funk you were in.

You walk down the length of the beach, then head up the stairs to the top of the beach bluff. There are 97 steps, you’ve counted them. At the top step, you feel winded and find the bench the park service has placed up there. You sit down and look out at the horizon. The sea goes on forever, all the way down the coast to the south and all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge to the north. Wavy light rises off the sea like waves of shimmering heat rise off a desert floor.

You feel strangely content, even a little giddy. A man you don’t know said, “Happy Day” to you as if it were a statement of fact. Is that all it takes to wipe away worry, to end the battles, the internal swirl of bad thoughts? Just “Happy Day?”

From this perch you can see the whole grand sweep of the beach. The pelicans are flying in formation, skimming the waves, there are flocks of curlews and seagulls and Caspian terns, my god, what a day this is, you feel like weeping. And that’s when you see someone in the distance, coming up the beach stairs, heading your way, at first, just a speck like you’d see on the horizon of a desert, then slowly taking form, growing into a person. Here he comes, it’s Lawrence, no Larry, you’re that familiar with him now, yes, Larry! You’d recognize him anywhere with that towel on his head flapping like the white headdress of a desert sheik.

You want to make up for your earlier bumbling reply, want to let him know you can return a simple greeting. He looks up when he reaches the top step, sees you and gives you a big thumbs up. Then he says, “Happy Day.” Again. He’s said it again.

Maybe it’s the only two words he knows, but if you’ve only got two in your quiver it might as well be those. You smile a big smile, a knowing smile, and in a clear voice, so there’s no mistaking your meaning, you reply, “Yabba Dabba Doo.”

Toni Mirosevich’s stories about an overlooked community on a crumbling coastal town in the Bay Area have appeared in Catapult, Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review and are forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. She is the author of six books of poetry and prose and lives with her wife in Pacifica, Calif.

Photo by Toni Mirosevich