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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Appointed Rounds

Submitted by on February 27, 2006 – 11:11 AMNo Comment

At that time, everything went on foot, not just the mail: fruit, shoes, a mattress, anything you needed got hucked to you on someone's back or in a wagon. Dangerous work, a carrier job, with the thief bands out on the roads (or what remained of them), but the only work going in most counties unless you could fix things, which Connors couldn't. He could learn things and remember them, though; it's what he'd done before, as a student, so when the time to hide ran out, he took a job with the Territories Postal Authority.

Mail carriers at that time took the mail on their backs or in a sack, the same as before, but also in their heads, in case a thief band commandeered the load. Most people had stopped putting anything of value, of monetary worth, into the mail, but now and then a trinket or a sleeve of coins made its hopeful way into the system, and the thieves would take a mail carrier's whole bag on the chance of it. The TPA didn't back down. A citizen pays for a stamp, the county commissioner said, a citizen gets his mail delivered, end of story. So before a carrier went out, he had to memorize the contents of his bag — salutations, punctuation, love letters, Cyrillic letters, postmarks and handwriting, the lot. And then he could deliver it, handing it over or as a speech.

One frigid morning, Connors came in to find his route partner already at the steam tables, dividing up the load and frowning, so he asked now what, and Rodriguez said don't get him started, and Connors said he certainly wouldn't, knowing that Rodriguez had been waiting until he got there to start but good, which he did, goddamn girls with their stickers this, goddamn Satori family with their four-page letters that, don't they know we have to open these, don't they know I can't draw, Connors, I swear to Christ.

Connors said to give him the razor blade and he'd have a try at the stickers, and we'll just bring Bunbury to draw the Japanese characters, don't get bent. Son, Rodriguez said, we're all bent now, look around, and Connors said, you know what I mean, and then he said, steam's up, let's get started.

They took their stations, Connors holding the envelopes in the hot vapor until their seals gave way, then handing them to Rodriguez for sorting. Español pile's short, Connors said, and Rodriguez said he thought that one guy in Mountainside with all the daughters, Diaz, died maybe. That'd do it, Connors said. He wasn't so much older than us, that guy, Rodriguez said. Connors said, you don't think? Younger than my dad, I bet you money, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez counted off Connors's pile, and Connors took it into the sorting room and spread it out and got down to memorizing, using mnemonics to sort them in his head, type from script, black ink from blue, stationery from scrap and so on. He could hear Rodriguez in Brenton's office, complaining, and in his head he tied it to the envelope he had in front of him at that moment, turned it into a shortcut, the scraping sine wave of Rodriguez's voice opening up into the hasty hand of a John Mazzeri.

Rodriguez stuck his head in and said, you done? One more, Connors said, and opened the letter from Mazzeri, a single sheet folded once and — blank. No writing. Well, that's easy, Connors said, and Rodriguez said, it's never easy, and Connors showed him the blank sheet and said, looks easy enough to me, unless it's lemon juice.

Rodriguez took the sheet, gently, and nodded while regarding it. I heard of these, he said, but I never saw one. My old partner, Bailey, got one. It's a code, Bailey told me. What kind of code, Connors said, taking the sheet back, and Rodriguez said, from the ones who go north, to say they're safe. They send the empty letters as they go, so their families can track 'em from the postmark, and then the last one comes from the lake border as they're about to go over. And then, Connors said, and Rodriguez said, and then, and opened his hands. And then that's it, Connors said. That's right, Rodriguez said.

Connors reglued all his letters and thought about something else. The letters stuck better in his mind if he could leave them be, so as he packed up his bag and put on his vest and checked his compass, he remembered winter mornings from his childhood, having a car, powdered cocoa. Mittens itching.

The three of them set out at noon: Connors, Rodriguez, and Bunbury, who had a new pair of glasses made from windshield shards and looked exhausted as usual. Following the old Lakeland Bus route, they crossed the interstate, then looped back into Sheridan and began up the long, slow hill to the center of town. They didn't talk much, tried to stay in the sun, and Connors thought about how much he liked the route in the warm weather, the smell of charcoal, the windows open to let singing out. Everything now seemed to have shriveled; the quiet created a pressure in his head like a cold.

In front of the middle school, thieves came out of the hedgerow and took the load. It was unceremonious and silent: the biggest one stepped forward and made a "c'mere" gesture with his hand, Connors and Rodriguez slipped their bags off and handed them over, and the handful of them walked back into the hedgerow and through it and gone. We never got hit there before, Connors said as they walked away. No telling where they're going to hit, Rodriguez said. I think one of them was my sister, Bunbury said, sighing. The crazy one? Rodriguez asked. The other one, Bunbury said, and added that he'd had a sandwich in Connors's bag, which Connors wished he hadn't mentioned, because he thought about it the rest of the way, the lost lunch, as they crunched along the Watchung trails.

At the edge of the square, Connors climbed a tree marked with green paint and rang the bell at the top while Rodriguez and Bunbury got set up in the center. He rested at the top of the tree for a few minutes and watched the people of the town coming out, winding their scarves, preparing in their coats and with their shoulders for whatever news came.

And so, they delivered the mail. A redheaded woman stepped up to Connors first, and he told her a letter from her cousin, that her grandmother was keeping well, they'd moved to a settlement near Baltimore but didn't plan to stay. Next was a love letter from a husband to a wife, and Connors knew the woman slightly; she ran a wagon out of the next town. Then a couple of postcards, then a death notice heard by an older man who seemed to know already what he'd be told, then Connors had to inform a teenage boy that his father had sent money but the thieves got it, and then the blank. Belladonna, Connors said. The woman stepped forward, hands in her armpits for warmth, and said she was Missy Belladonna; she had curly hair and a bit of bow to her legs. Connors told her John Mazzeri had sent her a letter from Oneonta, New York. And what did it say, Missy Belladonna said, her eyes on the ground. Connors said nothing. Missy Belladonna raised her eyes to his. Connors lifted his brows. Thank you, Missy Belladonna said, and walked away across the square. It was his last letter, so he watched her go into a blue house half a block from the square, scuffing her boots on the top step. Behind him, the Satoris clustered around Bunbury, trying to guess what his numbed hands meant to draw. We have a lot of wheels, I don't understand what that means, Mr. Satori said and rubbed his head, and Hiroko said, no, Daddy, the upstroke — we have a lot of wood. Ahhhhh, wood, Mr. Satori said, and beamed. They have a lot of wood. I'm glad to hear it, Bunbury said, blowing on his hands. Now about this mix-up with the dog character.

It's like Pictionary, Connors said. The Stevie Wonder edition, Rodriguez said, winding his watch. What's with the glasses? His sister made them, Connors said. The thief? No, the crazy one. Rodriguez said, she…uses a soldering iron, then, and Connors said, well, he doesn't sleep much. Jesus, Rodriguez said, and the two of them watched Bunbury for a while in silence, the Satoris guessing cheerfully at his pictograms.

The next week, it went much the same. Nothing for the Satoris, so Bunbury stayed at the depot, but it was another diamond-cold day and Connors had another blank for Missy Belladonna — and the thieves appeared again, this time next to a playground. They had a bit of an adventure in the reservation; trying to cross the road by the abandoned stables, they'd nearly gotten hit by a runaway cart. It blazed past them, shedding buttons and cans of peaches, with two loaf-footed teenagers in bellowing pursuit, and out of sight, they heard it wreck into the side of a shed. They'd seen a lot of carts that day, actually, taking advantage of the hardened ground by cutting through the woods, and Rodriguez had bought and noisily enjoyed a banana from one of them. Black as night, the banana, but Rodriguez didn't care.

At the square, as Rodriguez sing-songed his way through a sewing pattern sent to the Bega family from somewhere in Tennessee, Connors told Missy Belladonna that she had a letter from Derby Line, Vermont. And what did it say, Missy Belladonna said, her eyes on the ground, unfocused, as if she meant to find something by not looking for it. Connors said nothing. Missy Belladonna raised her eyes to his. You're sure it was Derby Line, she said. Yes ma'am, he said. John Mazzeri? Yes ma'am. She let her eyes drop and said thank you, and walked away across the square to her blue house with that bow-legged gull gait she had.

Rodriguez had finished. What, he said. What what, Connors said. Ain't the worst we've heard, Rodriguez said, and Connors said, nothing to hear in the first place, really, but he knew what Rodriguez meant, and he didn't feel sorry for Missy Belladonna, not exactly. None of the letters he memorized had much happiness to report, except that those who had sent them were still alive, not frozen or broken. That this woman had seen someone of hers go north, had maybe sent him there, this John Mazzeri — Connors could have guessed the details, but they weren't mysterious. The moment after the moment after bad news, the unwarm chair, the tasteless food, that interested him about her, somehow. Mazzeri, a line on the map, moving away from her, and she still thought to scrape off her shoes before going inside and doing whatever it is she would do then, in the last light. This, for Connors, was the question.

You could comfort her anyway, Rodriguez said, if you know what I mean. Connors rolled his eyes. Or she could comfort you — what, you don't like short girls? Not the point, Connors said, and don't start. I wasn't going to say nothing, Rodriguez said, his voice scaling up into an innocent squeak, but Connors said, you were, about Georgeanne. Yeah, well, Rodriguez said. I know she's not coming back, Connors said. I'm not waiting for her. I'm just waiting. Rodriguez didn't say anything, but Connors could tell it was just because of choice paralysis, and sure enough, after a few minutes Rodriguez said in the manner of a PA announcement that he bet money Georgeanne would show up on Connors's doorstep begging him to take her back. I doubt it, Connors said, but he didn't have any doubt, in the end. She'd put her ring in his sleeping fist and taken all her things. If she did show up on his doorstep, it would only be because she thought it wasn't his anymore.

The week after that, Bunbury joined them again, this time wearing an eye-patch, which he asked them not to ask about. They didn't have to, so they let him be. Another letter had come from Mazzeri, this one from Fort Kent, Maine. Rodriguez saw it at the steam tables and picked it out of the pile, frowning. What's he thinking, crossing there, he said, handing the envelope to Connors. Connors picked up the letter and studied it. He can't cross at Fort Kent, what the hell, he said, and Rodriguez said, that's what I mean, he's too far up. He sure is, Connors said. What're you going to tell her, Rodriguez wanted to know, and Connors said, nothing. She already knows, doesn't she, what Fort Kent might mean. You better hope so, Rodriguez said.

No thieves that day, and a bit of mud on the ground — warm enough to unglove one hand and share a cigarette, which they did, and to stand around talking with another carrier team they'd crossed paths with behind the Kings supermarket, which they also did, because Rodriguez had designs on Lao's sister. While Rodriguez made his case, Bunbury catnapped in a loading bay, and Connors watched a cart proceeding slowly along the edge of the lot. It had what looked like a wrapped rug in it, about six feet long, with netting over the top, and four carriers with it instead of the usual two. Bunbury woke up just then and said, look, a body. Yep, Connors said. Why'd they bother with the netting, do you suppose, Bunbury said. Flies don't hatch 'til March. Tradition, maybe, Connors said. Maybe, Bunbury said. Maybe so the thieves don't bother with it. Maybe, Connors said, and got up. Let's go, I don't want to get stuck behind them on those trails. You see the body cart, Rodriguez said. Slow as molasses, those things.

The three of them came onto the square at sunset. Connors heard a flute playing from a few streets away, and he wondered how the acoustics brought the sound to him. The people walked out for the mail, some without hats, sniffing the air and telling each other about spring still weeks and snows away, and out the front door of the blue house came Missy Belladonna with her hair cut short. Connors and Rodriguez handed around the letters, present in person that day, and Bunbury, not needed, napped again. Missy Belladonna didn't open hers; that too was not needed. But she did examine the postmark and raise her eyes to Connors's.

Fort Kent, she said. Connors nodded. What does that mean, she said. In his head, Connors told her to walk away, to cross the square and scrape her shoes and go inside the blue house and rearrange the furniture as he had done to fill up the spaces. In his head, she moved a chair, and then a trunk, and then she sat down heavily in the middle of the floor and stared at the marks in the carpet where table legs had gone. Out loud, he said nothing. What does Fort Kent mean, she said, and Connors said, don't you know? I want you to tell me what you think it means, she said, so that I'm sure, and Connors started to say, he went too far, and then he started to say, you'll never be sure, and then Rodriguez said, Connors, and pointed to the edge of the square and the cart with what looked like a wrapped rug in it turning up the path. Missy Belladonna turned to look, and turned back to Connors.

It means he's dead, Connors said. Thank you, Missy Belladonna said, and she turned and walked away, down the path to meet the cart.

February 27, 2006

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