Rich saw the white and blue painted jeep pull up at the bottom of his driveway. He heard a metallic clang, and the vehicle drove away. To steel his nerves he took a sip from a flask he kept hidden in his inner coat pocket, and then he said, “I’ll get the mail.” No one answered. He lived alone.
It took forty-two steps to walk from his door to the mail box by the road, and he knew every crack and oil stain in his driveway along the way. The roots from a maple in the neighbor’s yard had pushed up the cement four inches above its original bed in a section near the end of the driveway, and he carefully stepped down when he came to the rift. He had been meaning to tear up the concrete, dig out the roots and patch the hole, but kept putting off the job. He would have to work with his back to mail box at some point during the repairs, and he didn’t want to tempt an ambush.
And a level driveway meant that more visitors from work and church would nose their cars up the slope to his house. He didn’t have time to entertain guests when he needed all his vigilance to keep an eye on the mail box. And he sometimes suspected that the postal service might have already infiltrated his circle of acquaintances. Bob, the fat, fortyish guy who manned the cubicle next to Rich’s, often spoke with genuine disgust about UPS and Fed Ex when a package arrived with damaged goods inside. Rich knew where his allegiance lay. Louise, the choir director at Aloma Methodist, hoarded booklets of stamps in her purse. She abruptly snapped it shut if she thought that someone was looking too intently at the treasure within. She was a postal junkie.
As Rich approached the mail box he studied the wooden post and the dings on its metal shell. He had given a neighborhood punk with a bad case of acne and greasy hair twenty bucks to destroy it last week. Joey was supposed to wait until 3:35 in the morning to bash in the box with a hammer and set fire to the wooden post. If he had followed directions he wouldn’t have been interrupted by the patrol car making its nightly rounds at 3:05. So now the box was waiting for him with a partially crushed carapace and a blackened but intact post, and Rich was afraid that it knew who was to blame for its damage.
Rich picked up a fallen stick from beneath the maple’s overarching branches and used it to gingerly open the lid. It creaked on rusty hinges in an accusing tone. There wasn’t an explosion. He pushed the stick into the gaping opening and gently probed. Nothing attacked and no traps snapped. He pulled rubber gloves from his back pocket, tugged them on nervously and tentatively reached inside. He found two envelopes, one from a cable company and one from his daughter. His hands trembled as he slowly and respectfully closed the mail box.
He backed away from it in a half crouch ready to run if necessary. But it stayed rooted to its spot, and the lid remained shut. He turned and scurried away after he had gained a safe distance of five feet, and trotted back to his front door. He was brave enough that day to look over his shoulder just once during his retreat.
He tossed the two envelopes into a metal box on a bookshelf by the door, shut the lid, turned the lock, and stripped the gloves off his fingers and into a trash can. He took a seat in his recliner and took another pull from his flask…and another. He had to regain some composure before he faced the delicate and dangerous task of opening his mail. But he fell asleep without warning as he often did these days, and when he woke up the letters were gone from the box by the door. He frantically searched the house desperate to know the location of the infiltrators, and when he sat down again in his recliner he squealed with terror when he saw them on the end table at his elbow. When he had calmed down somewhat he recalled that he had stumbled to the bathroom before fully awakening. Perhaps he had opened the box and transferred the envelopes himself before dozing off again. Perhaps…
He fought the urge to snatch them up, shred and burn them. But he didn’t. He had made that mistake once before. He pulled on another pair of rubber gloves, took out a pocket knife dedicated for this one purpose from a clear, plastic container on the coffee table, and used it to delicately slit open what purported to be an advertisement from a cable company. A new copy of his credit card fell out and landed on the floor. The accompanying letter congratulated the bank’s cleverness in disguising the delivery, but Rich knew better. The mail box wanted him to lose the card.
The handwritten note in the second envelope was from his daughter. She informed him that she and her two young daughters would be arriving for a visit on the 23rd. That was only three days away, not nearly enough time for him to change the locks on all the doors and escape to a distant, inaccessible location. Little Lauren and Brooke liked to play a game called, “Scream at Grandpa”. The last time they had invaded his sanctuary they nearly put him in the hospital by “accidentally” running into him as he stood on a step stool, and he suspected that his daughter encouraged them to endanger his life. She still assumed that she was the primary beneficiary in his will. And what seemed worse to Rich was that she had filled out a civil service exam just before leaving town. She claimed to have become an insurance saleswoman in Tennessee, but that could just be the false identity that she had been given. Maybe those brats weren’t hers—Rich had never met the father and she certainly had little control over them and they looked like no one else in the family with their fat cheeks and piggy little eyes.
Rich pocketed the credit card and threw the letters and envelopes down the disposal in the kitchen. He realized, as he listened to the growling blades in his sink, that the box had figured who was ultimately responsible for the attack. His recent mail up until Joey’s aborted mission had mostly been benign come-ons from real estate agents and flyers from evangelical pastors who wanted to save his soul and lighten his wallet. He had enjoyed the lull in hostilities, an armistice from postal mayhem. But this letter from his daughter was all too transparent in its malignancy. Only the box in league with the postal service could have plotted such a subtle and ingenious scheme, so innocent on the surface and so deadly beneath. He knew that this was the opening shot of another campaign against him.
He wanted to call his friend Bill, but doubted if he would find any comfort from that quarter. He knew that Bill thought that he was losing his mind. He listened with condescending amusement whenever Rich explained his theories about the collusion of the mail box and the postal service to ruin his life. Bill worked for the St. John’s water management agency, a state bureaucracy that had nothing to do with the mail. But state and federal organizations were linked by computer, and subtle propaganda and subliminal messages could be sent by e-mail, and a person reading that corruption could be influenced and not know it and Bill might be a sleeper agent who would spring into action when a code word was sent to him by the postal service and…
Rich traced the initial moment of his downward turn into misery and confusion to an evening 11 months ago when he made the mistake of turning on the nightly news. A talking head named Ridge Rockwell reported that Congress had drastically cut funding for the Postal Service. The service had begun to lay off older workers drawing higher salaries while recruiting scabs willing to work for low wages and no pension. A recently appointed spokesman wearing a patched and stained uniform stepped up to the microphone when a reporter asked him, “What segment of the population is the service targeting in its search for new workers?” He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks and he had a nervous tic in one eye. The press agent began to laugh hysterically and seemed unable to regain control of his composure until a stern man at his elbow nudged him hard in the ribs. The bedraggled man wiped tears from his eyes and finally answered: “Oh, from all walks of life…You’d be surprised.”
One morning a few weeks after the broadcast Rich waited by the mail box for the mailman to pull up and hand him his mail. He had been out raking leaves when he heard the jeep approach. The carrier wasn’t John, the happy, bald guy who normally worked the route. His replacement had a thick head of black hair and a sour attitude. The postman slung the mail into the box and slammed the lid shut instead of handing it to him. Rich sarcastically said, “Thanks, buddy.” The surly carrier glowered and said, “Nice shirt, buddy!” Further down the block the postman intentionally rammed into a trash can that had been left in the road after the garbage pick-up. It eventually bounced free of the jeep’s bumper and lay dented and scraped in a yard one block east of its starting point.
Rich glanced down at his shirt and saw that it was soaked with sweat and stained with smears of dirt. When he thumbed through the stack of mail he found two late notices for bills that he swore he had already paid.
Two months later his wife Tina was bitten by a brown widow spider that had nested inside the mailbox. She spent a week in the hospital, almost lost her thumb, ran out of sick time while recuperating at home and was fired. The surly postman made a point of walking up to their door to deliver the envelope containing the news that her unemployment had been denied. Her former company’s legal department claimed that she had repeatedly broken company policies. She went into a depression when she couldn’t land a new job, and when the money got tight she ran away. On the day she left she told Rich that she going out to buy stamps, but never returned. She eventually mailed him a postcard from Toledo, Ohio (“Come visit the beautiful shores of Lake Erie!!), and wrote in a script that looked strangely unfamiliar that she had left Florida for good. Tina didn’t invite him to join her or give him the address of the place where she was currently staying. Divorce papers arrived shortly thereafter along with three flyers from local divorce attorneys.
Rich missed Tina, but bowed to the inevitable and signed on the bottom line without contesting the terms. Outside the courthouse his lawyer pocketed his check and told him that he was a free man. Rich asked him why Tina hadn’t showed up for the hearing, and the attorney smiled mysteriously and said, “She did everything by mail.”
When Rich returned home he decided to take action to start a new chapter in his life. He called the number on an advertisement he found lurking in his mail box. It connected him to a Christian dating service. A perky and sincere sounding woman named Joyce took down his profile information, and he was eventually matched with a thirty something divorcee who invited him back to her place at the end of their first date. Mary ripped off his clothes and jumped on top of him, and he thought that he had found his piece of heaven on earth. But after the final throes of their passion she made him kneel by the bed and pray with her for the forgiveness of their sins. Hers was a vengeful God in need of lengthy appeasement, and his knees were sore by the time she finally let him get up and put his pants back on.
Mary called him every day until he blocked her phone calls. She didn’t give up. She mailed him home made cards with pictures of kittens glued on construction paper with kiddy paste. She invited him in the messages (written with crayon and glitter in the margins) to attend prayer meetings with her. Then, when he didn’t respond, she became concerned about his soul. Finally, after sending ten cards to him without any response, she wrote a long letter describing the tortures of hell. The kitten on the enclosed card was given this speech bubble: “Jesus is your Savior or your Judge–choose wisely!”
The only contact with her that he had initiated had been on their first date, but that didn’t stop the mail box from presenting him with a restraining order from the Seminole County Courthouse and a notice that he was banned for life from the Christian dating service.
He wasn’t a suspicious man by nature and attributed the spate of bad mail and personal misfortune to a string of rotten luck. He still believed that people were basically good at heart. But he grew concerned one day when he saw the friendly mail carrier with the bald head in the back of the surly postman’s jeep. Rich called out to John as he passed by, and the man’s eyes twitched in his direction. The jeep was a half block away from Rich, but he thought that he saw a flesh colored bandage over John’s mouth.
Rich made the mistake of calling his local post office to report what he saw. The clerk on the other end growled into Rich’s ear, asked for his address and hung up on him. The next day he received an audit notice from the IRS and a bulky envelope from his insurance company. A complicated document informed him that he wouldn’t receive compensation for the damage done by a laurel cherry tree that had twisted and fallen on his garage roof during a recent storm. A hole had been punched through the shingles, and the roof had started to rot around the opening. As he picked through the double negatives and sentences with varied tenses and multiple clauses that appeared to contradict each other, he discovered that the insurance company had changed the definition of what constituted a “tree” and a “roof”. According to his “case manager” his claim had been denied because his “vehicular shelter toppage” had been struck by an “arboreal agent” that was not recognized as “culpable species of tree” in his policy.
Rich couldn’t tell if the world or he had gone mad, but began to suspect that the mail box was the source of all his trouble. He stayed home more often when he wasn’t at work, and his social circle narrowed as he spent his free time keeping the mail box and postman under surveillance.
The final straw came the day after the mail mysteriously moved from the strong box to his night stand. He got a notice from his savings and loan stating that he had automatically been signed up for a life insurance policy, and that $300 would deducted from his savings account each month starting two months before. As his current funds were now minus $237, he would be fined an additional $50 for each day he was delinquent in paying for said service.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. If the mail box was the source of his trouble, he would try to circumvent it. He jumped into his car and drove down to his local post office. He hadn’t been there for months, and had even skirted the streets in its vicinity when an errand took him in that direction. He bought his stamps at the grocery store check out. He sent packages via UPS.
Now he tightly gripped the steering wheel of his car for several minutes after backing into a space closest to the lot exit. He wanted an easy route of escape if necessary. He longed for a sip of whiskey before going in, but had left the flask at home. He forced himself to open the car door and walk into the building. He thought he heard the doors click shut and lock behind him, but was too afraid to go back and check. He waited in line behind a fat woman and a man with a cane. When he was called to the counter the clerk looked at him suspiciously and snarled, “What do you want?”
“I’d like a post office box.”
“You would…” the clerk sneered.
“Yes, please,” Rich answered.
“And why do you want that?”
“Uh, I’d just like one, please.”
“Fill out the form and we’ll do a background check and put you on our list.”
“A list? What kind of list?”
“We tell your kind that it’s a waiting list.”
“Your kind. Don’t play dumb.”
“Is it…a waiting list?”
“You’ll find out.”
“Uh, no thanks. I’ve changed my mind.”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“We have to put your name on a list of people who have changed their minds. Your name?”
When Rich backed away and tried to run to his car the clerk leaped over the counter, tackled him and held him in a choke hold. Rich stopped struggling but heard the clerk call out, “Tase him! He’s got a knife!” A jolt of electricity shot through his body and pain sizzled through every nerve ending. His eyeballs gave him the impression that they were trying to pop out of their sockets and roll away. And then there was blackness.
Rich woke up in a cinder block walled holding cell. A tiny window in a steel door sent a thin shaft of light into the narrow space. He saw that he wore nothing but his boxers, a gray t-shirt and black socks. He heard footsteps in the corridor and looked out of the slit. He saw three heavy set women wearing postal uniforms trudging down the hall. They stopped outside the door opposite his cell, and one of them tapped a night stick on the metal frame. A tough sounding guard called out in deep, mannish voice, “It’s time, Tina.” Rich heard a woman sobbing inside, and then his wife cried out, “No, you can’t make me!”
The guards opened the door and the biggest, meanest looking one pulled Tina out by the hair. Tina fought and bit until she was struck on the head with the truncheon. They dragged her unconscious form by her feet through a door at the end of the corridor.
Rich had been too terrified to call out her name during the assault, but before he had a chance to reflect on his cowardice he saw a troop of male guards coming for him. They threw open his cell door, grabbed him on either side by the arms and frog-marched him out of the cell block. They threw him into a small, windowless room with a bench and a bundle of clothes. A short, fat guard said, “Put these on. You’ve got two minutes.”
Rich opened the bundle and found black shorts and a powder blue shirt and a dark, blue baseball cap. He got dressed as quickly as he could, but was still buttoning the shirt when the door opened and Fatty threw a pair of black shoes at his head. Seconds later the door opened again and two guards took him in hand and pushed and shoved him into a room divided up into gray painted, metal cubicles. Chutes shaped like mail boxes were bolted to the ceiling. They opened at irregular intervals and dropped parcels and bundles of mail onto the heads of the prisoners below, and Rich saw that the men and women all wore the uniform that had been given to him and were chained to their seats. The guards roughly pushed him into an open cubicle, sat him down on a chair and manacled an ankle to the leg of a sorting table. Fatty spoke into cell phone and mail began to shower down onto Rich.
Fatty slapped him on the back of the head and pointed to five slots in the table. Each was labeled with a local zip code number. Fatty picked up a letter from Cleveland, pointed to the zip on the envelope and pointed to a slot. Rich nodded his head. He understood. He began to file letters, and although he made a show of diligence the guard didn’t move away. Fatty stood at his elbow as if willing his prisoner to look up. Rich finally succumbed.
Fatty looked contemptuous as he pulled an envelope out of his back pocket and handed it to Rich. It was addressed to him. Fatty told him to open it. Inside was an eviction notice. The county had seized Rich’s home by eminent domain, and a new sewage pumping station was going to be built in his garden. Fatty took the form from his trembling fingers, stuffed it into a new envelope, licked the glue along the flap with his fat, pink tongue and handed it to Rich. A bitter tear rolled down Rich’s cheek as he pushed it into the appropriate slot.
“Congratulations,” Fatty said. “You’ve just joined the postal service.