Fiction

After the Mailman

Paul Maliszewski

He no longer can depend on the mail because the mailman takes his time. His sweet time, he thinks, which he feels justified in thinking since he’s seen the guy in action. The mailman’s movements are purposeful but slow, and his route is long and includes many sprawling apartment complexes, virtually identical to his complex, except with a different name, a different look—rustic and woodsy or spare and modern—and different color schemes. The mail arrives at one in the afternoon or seven at night, or anytime in between. He never knows when to expect the mail. He is trying, with little success so far, to grow accustomed not to expect it.

The color scheme of his complex is maroon and light gray. The color scheme is thorough and pervasive, cropping up on the signs pointing to the rental office, the furniture filling that office, and the letterhead they use when they write him to explain his rent is past due. The buildings in the complex are light gray with maroon trim. The stop signs consist of light gray letters painted on a maroon octagon, mounted on a maroon post. In what seems (to him) like a bit of a fancy touch for a stop sign, the edge of the maroon octagon is light gray.

The people who work in the rental office wear a maroon knit shirt with khaki pants or, alternatively, a light gray knit shirt with khaki pants. All knit shirts feature the complex’s name and insignia: a stand of thin pine trees, each with a bird’s nest and each with a bird about to land or take off, depending on how one chooses to look at things. Behind those birds and trees is the sun, setting or rising, depending again on one’s perspective. A number of finely stitched squirrels dart about, chattering at each other over the rediscovery of various sewn representations of nuts. Sewn children play among the fallen pine needles, and a sewn golf cart, carrying letters that explain the eviction policy, emerges from the insignia’s right-hand side.

The maroon is the shade everyone once called burgundy. A good name for the gray might be overcast. The golf cart is white, the customary golf cart color.

 

*

 

Real mail is what he waits for, not the complex’s light gray and maroon imitations, their cleverly-disguised communication, written in their mountebank’s manner and couched in their polite, curt formality, their dear so-and-so, their it has come to our attention, their while performing a routine audit of our records, their as you’re no doubt aware, their it has always been our stated policy, their in the event we do not hear from you by such-and-such.

 

*

 

The mail comes, when it comes, to a small open-air hut. Perhaps kiosk would be the better word; regardless, the structure is maroon and light gray. Set into two walls are banks of locked and numbered mailboxes. His mail may be found, when it is found, behind mailbox door number seventy-four. Sometimes there is a key inside his box. The key signals that he has a package. Sometimes two packages, though that is a rare event. A number on the key that signals the arrival of a package corresponds to a matching number on a series of large storage boxes of the sort seen in airports, train stations, and bus depots. The numbers on the large storage boxes run in the following order: five, six, four, eight, nine, fifty-four, eleven, twenty, thirteen, fourteen. The kiosk hut thing also features a trashcan (maroon) and a cork bulletin board (gray trim).

 

*

 

MAILMAN

Still going to be a while yet.

 

HE

That’s okay. Looks like you just got here. You just get here?

 

MAILMAN

Yes, sir.

 

HE

I’ll wait out here.

 

MAILMAN

Okay, sir.

 

HE

Or I’ll come back later.

 

MAILMAN

Okay.

 

HE

Must take a while to deliver mail to this complex.

 

MAILMAN

It’s not that bad, sir.

 

HE

I mean just looking at it, at what you do, it seems like a lot of work.

 

MAILMAN

It’s all right. The people get angry sometimes.

 

HE

Really?

 

MAILMAN

Sometimes.

 

HE

They should just let you do your job.

 

MAILMAN

I tried to explain to this one guy a few days ago that there are rules. When I’m in here, delivering the mail and I have these boxes open, postal regulations stipulate that nobody else can have access to the mailboxes, or the mail in the boxes, until I close and secure all doors to all boxes.

 

HE

Makes perfect sense to me.

 

MAILMAN

You can’t have people reaching their hands into any old box they want. That’s how mail gets stolen. That’s one way it happens.

 

HE

So what did that guy do?

 

MAILMAN

He listened, but then he said, I’m going to get my mail right now. Real matter-of-fact. And I said to him, sir, you will take three steps in a backward direction and either wait outside or at some other location, but you will not get your mail until I’m finished with all the mail.

 

HE

Then what happened?

 

MAILMAN

He made a sour face, muttered some things under his breath, and I told him, listen here, if you’re in a gang, and you do something wrong, something that breaks that gang’s rules, there are consequences. The post office is no different in that respect.

 

HE

That makes sense. I wouldn’t have thought of that stuff about the gang, but you do have a point there.

 

MAILMAN

Did you know I once found a beat-up copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty? This was on my old route, which was more of what we call a walking between houses route. Someone had written inside that book, “Mill’s fallacies,” and then underlined it, underlined it twice, actually, as if to say, this is going to be the start of some big list I’ll keep. Except underneath “Mill’s fallacies” and the double underline, that same person wrote “fulminating.” That’s it. Fulminating.

 

HE

Doesn’t seem like much of a list.

 

MAILMAN

Doesn’t seem like much of a fallacy.

 

HE

Right.

 

MAILMAN

Which box are you anyway?

 

HE

I’m seventy-four.

 

*

 

The place where he lives is new. It’s a new apartment complex in what is a fairly new city currently enjoying a period of unparalleled, widely heralded growth. Everything is new here. New shops in new buildings catering to recently relocated people from the north and east. He has a hard time pointing to any one building that is both central to the operation of the place and constructed before 1991. He asks himself, where do I find the quintessence of this place? He has no answer. Maybe this place has no quintessence, he thinks. Maybe its peculiar lack of any discernible quintessence is its quintessence. He’s not sure. All he knows is that living here is like having a ten-year-old as his only friend.

 

*

 

The newspaper reports that a mailman in this fairly new city has consistently failed over a period of months to deliver the mail on his route. While the various accounts conflict, what’s clear, regardless of the version, is that this mailman hoarded mail meant for people on his route. Not all the mail, and not even all the most valuable mail—not checks, for instance, or packages—but still mail meant for others. Perhaps this mailman was overwhelmed by the unparalleled growth of the fairly new city. Perhaps so many new people, all receiving mail, placed unique burdens on this mailman. Or perhaps this mailman was up to something. When the authorities confronted this mailman, they found bags full of mail in his car, in his home, stuffed inside his kitchen cupboards, at the bottom of his closet, filling an unused tub and spilling out from underneath his bed.

Imagining such a mailman, imagining that these problems exist, that they happen, worries him. He grows concerned. He harbors suspicions where before he had none. Though no single piece of his mail ever goes missing, though he has no good reason to accuse his own mailman of hoarding, though he even likes his mailman, appreciating him and his tireless efforts, even when the mail arrives a little late, or even, for that matter, when it arrives a lot late, which it does, pretty regularly, he still wonders if it could happen here, to him, to his mail, now.

 

*

 

He receives in the mail some pieces of junk and then more junk. When he returns to his apartment—it is only minutes later, if that—he discovers a cardinal trapped in the foyer. The foyer extends from the ground floor up to a vaulted ceiling studded with several plexiglas bubble-like windows. As he climbs the stairs, the cardinal is above him. It throws itself into one of the skylights, flapping its wings against the Plexiglas, and hitting its head on what must look like the sky. The cardinal does this repeatedly and with a certain determination. When the cardinal strikes the skylight it makes a hollow smacking sound. Then it tires and goes skittering down the wall. Moments later it takes another crack at flying through the skylight.

His first thought is something like, Can anything live in this environment? Anything at all? Then he thinks, Is there any creature, is there one single creature that is at home here? Then he thinks, Poor bird.

 

*

 

On the way to pick up the mail he sees a sign that went up overnight: Community of the year. Why did this happen? he asks himself. When, he thinks, did the apartment complex become a community? The sign is maroon with light gray lettering. He refuses to believe the sign and won’t or can’t accept that the complex won any contest. He doesn’t think there was a contest. At so many levels the sign is so full of so much shit. He decides he’ll take the sign down, or failing that, vandalize it. He makes this his mission. So one night, while going to pick up the mail, he approaches the sign. He sees that it’s bolted to the wall. This won’t be easy. The plastic is tough and resists tearing. He half-heartedly tugs at a corner and then walks away to go check the mail. It is his third or maybe fourth time that day to check for the arrival of new mail. Each time he thought it had to be after the mailman had come and gone, and each time he was not right.

Later—this was after the apartment complex received its honor—he notices that a sign marking a speed bump and cautioning drivers to proceed slowly, is not maroon and light gray, but black and white. Quite a fallacy, he thinks.

 

*

 

While getting the mail he observes the following: two women speaking German, a boy on a scooter, a girl chasing after her dog, several joggers, several more walkers, and a work crew boring a fourteen-foot-long corkscrew into the earth. Grandparents pushing a baby stroller pass him without making eye contact. The joggers here have special outfits and wear them proudly. As they jog past, he smells their soap. Some wear perfume. Someone staples notices to telephone poles (Lost: a very special family doll). Another someone has spraypainted “Faggot” on a fence, behind which an excitable dog runs back and forth, barking. A woman asks him if he knows where Sandstone Ridge is. He doesn’t. Is that another apartment complex? he asks. Like this one? Do you know? The woman shrugs.

And there are the children, children playing under a stand of thin pine trees. It is not like in the apartment complex’s insignia, or not exactly, anyway. Two of the children are slugging each other. One is sitting on another’s chest, pinning her shoulders to the ground and letting a length of spit drip from his mouth, only to retract it before it hits her face. Another child has a lighter and is trying to ignite a pile of fallen needles. Acrid, greenish smoke curls into the air. Up in the trees, in the branches, the birds scatter. The child coughs, rubs his nose then gets back to the business of setting stuff on fire.

Off to his right the rental office people are piling into their golf cart with a couple, another couple new to the city, maybe with new jobs starting soon and, with them, some vision of how things will be better this time, or at least different.

As he walks toward the kiosk hut thing he doesn’t see the kid in the maroon facepaint crouched behind a tree. Nor does he see that kid’s buddy, in sneakers and light gray bodypaint. Nor does he hear them stifling their laughter. Nor does he know what they have planned. Nobody knows what they have planned. Nobody will know how in the world they broke into the complex’s storeroom. Nobody will fail to look confused when considering the subject of the kids and the paint. Nobody will understand why they went right for the two-gallon cans of maroon and light gray. But the kids surely pried them open with something and then tottered back outside, lugging two cans each.

It’s entirely possible that he does hear their laughter, but chalks it up to squirrels chattering over nuts, and so he thinks nothing of it, and then things become much worse, and then things do not get better, and then everything darkens.

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