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"Philatelist" by Conor Burnett, Winner of the West 10th Editors' Award in Fiction


    Henry Tevlin is the type of person who would not like that people are reading about, and analyzing, his every thought and action.
    Henry Tevlin looks like someone took Gargamel, put him in a pair of slacks, combed his hair over and killed his temper. This is not to slight Henry Tevlin; it’s just the best possible way to describe him.
    Henry Tevlin is driving up NY Route 17 toward Geneva, NY, where he’ll pick up a C15 Graf Zeppellin stamp. He will stop at a Holiday Inn Express for the night outside of Geneva, less out of necessity and more out of a love uninterrupted sleep, uninterrupted television, uninterrupted cinnamon rolls, and other such things that bachelors take for granted.
    A seasoned veteran of the married life, Henry knows to enjoy the little things, and only the little things. Enjoying a big thing garners attention, and the wife could potentially ruin it. Pamela Tevlin is the passive aggressive type. Pamela Tevlin leaves the milk jug in the refrigerator, regardless of how close to empty it is. Pamela Tevlin uses Henry’s razor, despite having her own. The key is to stack up little things, and treat them as if they are the big things. Henry enjoys Kit-Kat bars more than he could enjoy a Porsche. What he likes most is closing his eyes, to relax and fall into his imagination. Not a luxury he can afford right now, driving on Route 17 to Geneva.
    When time permits, he is an avid driver. He loves the open road, literally and metaphorically. He loves wind, pavement, car, radio, and gasoline just as much as the freedom.
    Stacking up the little things like it was his job.
    While Henry loves what his job is supposed to be, he does not always love his job. Henry Tevlin is a philatelist. A philatelist is not just a stamp collector. In fact, you don’t even have to own any stamps in order to be a philatelist. Technically, Henry’s job was actually easier than just stamp collecting. Unfortunately, Henry’s job was not actually easier than just stamp collecting. Henry Tevlin considers himself to be on a mini-vacation. He does not want to have to think about the stamp business.
    “I think the stamp business is much more lucrative than the average citizen would gather.” he tells the denizens of the Holiday Inn Express bar.
    Patrons of hotel bars all tend to be either businessmen or families on vacation. Henry gravitates towards a group of men who also looked like homely cartoon characters brought to life, and schools them on the stamp industry.
    “Do you know how much the Inverted Jenny goes for? I didn’t think so. Google it. We have had two of them.”
    This is the sort of rationale that Henry uses on anyone who doubts his career choice (including himself, from time to time). In reality, six-figure stamp deals like this are few and far between, but nobody knows that. Even if you were to muster up the money to buy an Inverted Jenny or a Hawaiian Missionary, you would only be able to turn it over for at most 5% more than what you got it for. The real money is in efficient small deals, but anyone who is efficient tends not to be a philatelist.
    Philately is not high on most kids’ list of prospective careers. It was not high on Henry Tevlin’s either. Stamp collection turned to stamp obsession turned to philately. It all grew organically. Henry naturally evolved into a stamp man. Lately, Henry’s been plagued with the sneaking suspicion that he’s wasted his life. However, for the time being he is not thinking about the negative aspects of being a philatelist. He is in a happy place, here in this hotel bar where a motley crew of salesmen (who also resemble cartoon characters) hangs on his every word.
    “You know, philately is a lot more noble than I had thought.” Says Droopy Dog, being 100% genuine.
    “It’s youthful. It’s like a boyhood dream come to life. You get to collect stamps for a living. The ten-year-old in me is throwing a jealous fit.” Says George Jetson.
    Droopy Dog, George Jetson, and Dick Dastardly take turns singing their praises of Henry Tevlin.
    “I’m going to say something and I don’t want any of you to take it the wrong way. Henry, I want to be you. You’ve got your life together perfectly. Solid job, solid family, and you’ve got insight into things I didn’t even know existed.” Says Dick Dastardly. “Boys, put your drinks up. A toast. A toast for Henry Tevlin.”
    He is the man of the hour. He is Norm from Cheers. He is Kramer. He is on top of the world. Three cheers later, his attention turns to beautiful woman at the end of the bar.
    She’s sitting straight up on the stool. Stools have no back support. She’s sitting straight up with no back support. She’s in stark contrast with Pamela, who slumps as low as possible, her back molding to the shape of whatever surface she’s plopped herself onto. This girl’s back was standing strong, and freely. The rest of her was nice too.
    “I bet you’d like her to give you an Inverted Jenny.” Says Jetson, noticing
Henry’s wandering eyes.
    “I doubt that she would have an Inverted Jenny to give away, and doubt even more that she would just give it away. I’m surprised that you would focus your comment on how she might benefit you financially, and not on how beautiful she is.” Says Droopy, missing the point.
    All four men are married. None of them has a shot at her. Sobered and saddened by this realization, one after another, Henry’s gang leaves the bar. Dastardly pats Henry on the back one more time:
    “If anyone of us could get with her, it’d be you pal. See you around.”
    Alone at the bar with a beautiful woman to stare at: A nice little thing for Henry Tevlin.
    The beautiful woman catches Henry staring, and stares back. Henry has stared at enough people to know that snapping your head away is a surefire way to look suspicious. Henry looks at the woman for a second more, then turns his head to casually look at the liquor rack in front of her, then back at his beverage. A few seconds roll by. Henry pretends to check his phone to catch another glimpse at her. She is still staring. This is not the sort of thing that happens to Henry Tevlin. This is the sort of thing happens in pornography. There’s no way he can rationalize her staring. Maybe she’s upset that she’s being ogled. Maybe she isn’t staring at Henry Tevlin.
    Maybe (and this is a strong maybe) she wants to have sexual relations with Henry Tevlin.
    She gets up from her seat. This little thing is growing. They are sitting approximately 11 feet apart. The average human walks at around 3 miles per hour. The walk itself cannot take more than 5 seconds. However, in these 5 seconds, Henry’s heart has beat 15 times. This is dangerously close to a heart attack, especially given Henry’s health and body type.
    “Sir, I do not know your name, but I would like to have sexual relations
with you.”
    This little thing is growing. His little thing is growing. Henry Tevlin has no idea how to adequately respond.
    “Yes.” is what he wants to say.
    “Why?” is what he does say.
    “We’re both in this hotel for one night. Why not spend it together?”
    Her logic is flawed but Henry is willing to see through it. His internal debate does not take as long as it should. After a long time of giving up little things, he feels he had earned at least one big thing.
    As soon as they make it to her room, Henry goes to the bathroom, partly to freshen up, partly to assess the situation. She has splurged and purchased a suite. The walls are alternating stripes of Behr™ UL110-6 Edgy Red and Behr™ UL110-1 Tuscan Russet, with a floral patterned border surrounding the ceiling. He pees and washes his hands, without soap. When he gets to the door, he realizes what he is about to do with this woman, turns around and re-washes his hands, this time with soap. He opens the door. She is naked, her clothes lying on the love seat. Quicker than he thought it possible, he is too.
    Henry Tevlin would be embarrassed if he knew that other people were
reading about his sexual exploits.
    In the throes of coitus, Henry catches something out of the corner of his
eye. He manages to take his eyes off of the woman long enough to survey his surroundings. There, slumped in the loveseat that was previously occupied by Henry’s dream girl, is one big huge thing.
“Go on I’ll let you finish up. What you’re doing looks important.”
    She is consuming the couch. Her doughy body is slowly expanding, until it envelops the whole thing. She is an obese amoeba; this is phagocytosis. Henry Tevlin goes soft.


    Henry Tevlin’s member slips from his grip.
    His eyes open too quickly. His pupils don’t have enough time to dilate. His head hurts.
    The Tevlin’s bathroom is supposed to be white. When it was purchased it 20 years ago it was white. Maybe it was time, maybe the dying lightbulb has just made it seem like the bathroom is dirtier than it actually is. This, Henry wages, is a problem. If he buys a new lightbulb, and finds out the bathroom is actually dirtier than he anticipated, he suspects his wife will try to make his life worse.
    His wife has taken away another big thing. He will go on his business trip tomorrow and it will be routine.
    He tries to open the bathroom door, but his liberal use of lotion as a lubricant left his hands slathered. Putting his hand in the inside of his shirt, Henry is able to get a grip on the handle. There, on the bed watching Jeopardy is one big huge thing.
    No, Henry won’t fix up the bathroom. Things are going to stay exactly
the way they are.
    He scrunches onto his corner of the bed, and closes his eyes.