The Egg Had It in for Me

Near the beginning of the pandemic, baking ingredients, such as eggs, yeast and flour, disappeared from shelves at the Winter Park Publix.  This happened a week after toilet paper and hand sanitizer had vanished.  Anxious customers were more concerned, at first, about issues of outflow than issues of input.  I hadn’t been concerned about either and had to scrounge for supplies. 

Eggs began to reappear a few weeks after the first spasm of general panic had ebbed.  I bought a carton of 18 just to be sure and noticed the considerably lower price per egg.  My usual dozen began to look like a boutique buy.  I’ve purchased the larger carton ever since.

I usually fry an egg for breakfast. I lay it onto a piece of bread coated with melted cheese.  An egg-and-cheese has become part of my morning ritual, and I can make it with my eyes closed.  But I woke up more groggy than usual today and bumped into the kitchen counter on the way to the stove.  The cold, white light inside the fridge stabbed my eyes.  When I attempted to open the egg carton, the lid stuck.

I wedged my hand inside to pry out an egg.  In an eighteen-count carton, the eggs press tightly together.  They sometimes resist.  I tugged on one egg, met its stubborn refusal to budge, and tried another.  When my fingers got a good grip on the second egg, it crumbled inward.

“Shit!” I calmly remarked as yolk and white slimed my digits.  Not content to stay inside its original compartment, the crushed egg seeped sideways and beneath another egg.  I took the carton to the sink counter.  I tried to scoop out the yolk into a frying pan but suspected further treachery.  The yellow gunk tried to slide through my fingers onto the floor, but I managed to catch it with my other hand.  Some attendant white escaped to drip onto the linoleum.  (“Shit!” I calmly remarked again.)

Most of the white, however, remained behind and threatened to ooze throughout the carton.  I imagined picking up sticky, foul smelling eggs for the rest of the week.  I lifted the egg nearest to the flood and found a puddle beneath.  I tried to place the intact egg on a sink divider, but it intended to shatter itself on the sink bottom.  I decided that today was a two-egg day, cracked it into the skillet, and burned the side of my hand.  (“Shit!” I calmly remarked yet again.)

The eggs sizzled in the pan, but a puddle persisted in the carton.  I decided to tip the remnant ooze onto its frying compatriots.  I carefully place my hand over the remaining eggs and tilted the carton.  I fully expected one of the eggs to slip by and shatter on the stovetop but managed to avoid further difficulties.  I used a paper towel to finish cleaning the carton and to scrub the floor near the stove. I used soapy water to wipe down the counter, edge of the stovetop and the faucet.  I had managed to slime them all up.

A few minutes later, I bit savagely into my sandwich.  “Revenge is mine,” I thought.  Then something delicate and chalky crunched between my teeth.  Eggshell.  (“Shit!”)

A Star Ascends

Ava and Judy

I brought out pictures of Ava, our granddaughter, taken when she was a few months old. The older women at church nodded, smiled, and passed the photos around. I said, “I think that she’s really intelligent, so aware. She looks around intently as if she’s taking it all in.”

One of the ladies hesitated then said, “Now, everyone thinks that their grandchildren are exceptional.” She gave me a knowing look as if she’d concluded that I had already begun to delude myself. I thought, “Well, you’ve never met Ava.”

Ava and Annie have been staying with us for the last week while Bryant, Ava’s Dad, is off on a trip. Judy and I have helped take care of Ava. Having had an opportunity to observe her at close hand for an extended period of time, I must say that my original estimate of Ava’s intelligence was wrong. She’s actually a lot smarter than I originally assumed. Not to mention irrepressibly cute, athletic and inquisitive.

Now I know that some of you are smirking. You think that I’m just besotted by her exceptional good looks. But Ava’s more than a pretty face. She’s got substance and style. When she smears baby food on her person, she considers first then acts with bold panache. The rapid swipe of the back of her hand across the underside of her nose speaks of decisiveness and passion.

She’s become quite a linguist. We’re not sure how many languages she speaks, or how many she can use within one word or sentence, but she declaims for minutes at a time while adding dramatic gestures. Sometimes she throws in imitations of animal calls to accent points deserving special attention.

Ava shows signs that she’s developing a scientific mind set. She experiments with gravity, dropping objects and repeatedly standing up and sitting down. She tests the tensile strength of spoons, stuffed animals and plastic toys by inserting them into her mouth for thorough gnawing. Pretty much anything within her reach becomes part of her exhaustive studies.

She’s also a people person. When she enters a room, she engages the first person she encounters with an appraising stare followed by a smile. Before new members of her entourage understand what’s happened, they find themselves holding Ava, playing with her, letting her guide them around the room as she grasps their fingers. She’s already a charismatic leader.

As a budding genius and socialite, she does occasionally show signs of a high-strung temperament. She cries easily when unintentionally losing her balance and requires reassuring words to restore her calm. She demands immediate comfort when tired while not taking into account the collective fatigue of her attendants. She calls out for attention if left in a play pen without proximate companionship.

Some might call her high-maintenance, a diva. But I say that stars can’t be judged by the same standards as the rest of us mere mortals.

Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

Napping Out of Control

Ed woke up from a nap, yawned and stretched, sat up straight on the sofa.  He asked me, “What time is it?”  I said, “Three,” and he replied, “That late?!  I’ve been napping out of control!”

Judy described Pine, Colorado, the little town near her brother’s house in the Rocky Mountain foothills.  She said, “There’s the Bucksnort Tavern, and there’s a drive by library.”  My eyes widened, and then we laughed.  I pantomimed a murderous librarian idling along a curb while slinging hard backs at cringing pedestrians.  Judy went on to explain that the library was a box on the side of a building.  Books could be borrowed or returned according to whim.

When my daughter Annie was a toddler she suffered from food allergies, and we had to carefully monitor her diet.  One thing she could have was granola.  When snack time came midafternoon, we sometimes said, “You can have half a granola bar.”  When we asked her one day what she wanted (peaches were another option), she called out, “Half!”

One day I sat writing bills, grumbling as I balanced the check book.  My water bill was high.  The city of Casselberry had taken over our service a two decades before, and still charged our neighborhood an exorbitant rate.  Annie (now a twenty year old) asked me what I was doing.  I said, “Just writing a check for the Castle of Shitzelberry.”

I recently read a feature about how airline attendants punish surly flights of passengers.  Changes in altitude apparently cause an intestinal upwelling of gas, and our friends in the sky walk up and down the aisle near the end of a flight to “dust the crops”.

Jack worked in the kitchen at a pizza restaurant with me, and when he wanted to go home early he would begin to sing loudly enough for the diners to hear.  He chose Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” one night, but substituted his own version of the lyrics.  The song became, “Another one bites the crust, another one bites the crust.  Hey, it’s gonna get to you!  Another one bites the crust!”  That got Zukavecki the night manager to come running.  Zukavecki told Jack to keep it down and that he had to finish his shift.  Jack waited until the manager left the kitchen, and then belted out another Queen song:  “Bohemian Rhapsody”.   He focused on the “let me go” section singing, “Zukavecki let me go, Let me go, Zukavecki let me go, He will not let me go,  Let me go go gooooo.  Bee–ell–zuh–bub’s got a devil for a son in me, in ME.”  Zukavecki let him go.

Sometimes when I’ve completed a job I announce, “It is Swedished.”  My kids know better than to ask me what I mean by that.  If they do I say, “Why should the Finns get all the credit?”

A Sense of Humor Helps

There are many ways to judge whether a relationship might work. Sharing or at least tolerating each other’s sense of humor is one. When my wife and I dated I sometimes cooked a meal for us, and one night Judy held up her plate with a pathetic orphan look on her face and said, “Please, sir, may I have more?” My eyes popped wide as I recognized a speech from Oliver Twist. My previous girlfriend had thought that Steven King novels were the height of literature, and Judy quoted Dickens. My heart leapt with joy.

I had first studied biology in college, and Judy was in the process of earning her Ph.D. in plant physiology when we met and married. On our honeymoon in Maine we climbed to the top of a mountain in Acadia National Forest. A cold breeze blew as we stood on a rocky plateau at the top, and a thick fog surrounded us on all sides. She pulled a sweatshirt out of her backpack, and her head got stuck inside as she attempted to push her arms through the sleeves. She stood with her arms waving over what appeared to be a headless torso and I said, “My wife, the hydra.” She started laughing, and it took her a bit longer to emerge.

When Judy got pregnant with our first child we went to an OB/GYN group in State College. We saw four doctors on a round robin basis, and some could be gruff and rude. Judy appreciated it when I nicknamed a sixty year old man, a former army doctor, who kept advising Judy to watch her weight. His name was Wengrovitz, but we privately referred to him as Vinegar Tits. Dr. Mebbane gave us stern lectures at odd moments, and we hoped that he wouldn’t be on call when it came time for the delivery. We held up our arms in crosses as if warding off a vampire when we discussed him and called out, “Med Bane” in hopes of repelling him.

I rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and sometimes sing my version of Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” in the morning while making breakfast.  Original version:  “You are so beautiful, to me.  You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for.  You’re everything I need.  You are so beautiful, to me.”  My version: “You look available, to me. You are everything I’d ever settle for. You’re the only woman I see. You look available…to me.” Judy doesn’t take offense but comments on how romantic I’ve become over our years together.

We got new flip phones a few months ago. Sometimes my phone emits rapid bursts of beeps when I walk with it in a pants pocket, and it woke me up one night with a beep and flash of light as it rested on my bureau. Judy took it from me when it sounded off during a meal and searched through the menu. I asked her to look for a “random bullshit” button that she could turn off. She went through a bunch of applications, but didn’t find anything that might help. She handed it back and drily said, “Sorry, they don’t list ‘random bullshit’ anywhere.”

 

Despairing for Joy

Today I saw a woman standing at a bus stop.  She held up a blown out umbrella in a vain attempt to take shelter from the rain.  A sudden squall lashed at her, but twenty yards down the road the pavement remained absolutely dry.

So life sucks.   We can agree on that, can’t we?  There’s no need to defend this proposition.  But if some of you suspect that I’m being overly negative, just think back to a few moments from childhood that came as rude shock.  Extrapolate from there (review similar episodes from various stages in your life) and come to the aforementioned, obvious conclusion.  Don’t listen to Pollyannas who try to obscure the clarity of your dark vision when they babble on about newborn babies, flowers and sunshine.  The positive-thinking upbeats are just part of the evil.  Their one cruel purpose in life is to make you feel bad about your negativity.

As you sink deeper into depression reflect on the Buddhist teaching that all life is suffering.  Think, “Thanks a lot, Buddha.  That sure helps,” and feel even more justified in holding onto your black funk.

When you hit rock bottom find some satisfaction that you can’t sink any further, and then consider the additional afflictions that could arrive at any moment.  Marvel that the possibilities for personal misery are nearly infinite, and smile when you realize that God is magnificent in His Elaborate Creativity.

Find satisfaction in the fact that by wallowing in despair you are actually coming closer to the hidden foundations of All That Is.  A star doesn’t want to explode in a super nova, and galaxies fear the black holes swallowing them.   The seas shudder as they crash against the unyielding shore, and mountains despise the storms that gnaw at the magnificence of their height.  A microbe dreads the touch of an ameba as much as an antelope abhors the rake of a lion’s claws.

By embracing the pervasive Cosmic Despair you enter into the Great Ennui and become one with the true nature All That Is.  Unimaginable relief floods your soul as you realize that your futile struggle for happiness has finally ended.

“Thank God that’s over,” you’ll pray as your heart fills with sweet resignation, which is, after all, the purest form of joy.

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

She Spurned

After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

dsc_0034T-Rextile Dysfunction, Acrylic on Board

I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.

“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

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Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.

 

Postal

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.”

“My kind?”

“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?”

“My name?”

“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.