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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fiction: "The Jolly Postman"

Okay, here's the deal: this feels like a bit of a cop-out, because I wrote the following piece back in April. But I figured that somebody might be interested in reading one of the few fiction pieces I've ever produced. The context for this was a Writing Group assignment in which each of us got a postcard with a cartoon on it, from which we were supposed to get inspiration for a +/-1200 word short-story..

My postcard was called "The Jolly Postman" and aside from an actual smiling postman, also seemed to include characters from various nursery rhymes including Jack and Jill, a fuzzy bear in a striped tshirt, some bunnies and maybe even Humpty Dumpty.

"Good Lord, what am I going to do with THIS?," I wondered. Well, what I did is what follows. The gals in my Writing Group (Darlene and Kathryn) really liked it, so here it is (be kind):

Step on a crack; break your mother’s back. Step on a crack; break your mother’s back.

How many times have I broken my mother’s back?, the postman wondered as he ambled down the tree-lined sidewalk. Almost every day for the last 37 years, Harold Jolly had delivered other people’s mail in every kind of western Oregon weather, wearing every possible combination of federally-approved attire. He had worn out countless pairs of shoes; shoes he never used during his off hours. His off-duty shoes, meanwhile, had not needed replacing in a decade.

Every day, Harold toted his work-shoes to the post office in the same canvas tote bag, once a notable traffic-cone orange, but now faded to watery pink. His wife had purchased the bag up at the 1982 Timberlane Annual Frog Festival, the logo of which had gradually worn off from hard use.

Like most postal workers whose route is accomplished on foot, 59-year-old Harold was lean and healthy. Spring through mid-fall, his face, arms and legs tanned to a healthy-looking brown. During the remainder of the year, he looked only slightly less fit – the tan faded gold and his cheeks reddened from brisk winter air.

Today his shoes were new and his face flushed, and from all appearances Harold was at the top of his game. Yet, when the residents along his route happened to spot him walking down their street, they barely registered it, so familiar was his presence.

Mariel Hodges thought to herself, There’s the mail; it must be nearing three o’clock. I’ll need to get that pork loin out of the freezer for thawing.

Kaitlyn Chow bolted for her mailbox as soon as Harold flipped the lid shut, so eager was she for the latest issue of Seventeen. In her characteristic teenage way, she did not acknowledge the man who delivered her magazine.

Upon spying Harold through his bedroom window, Brad Stuppens disregarded the small inner-voice warning him that the three beers he consumed daily before mail-delivery indicated a drinking problem.

Harold noticed these people and others only slightly less than they noticed him, reflecting instead on his shoes. The new pair would be the last he would ever wear on this route. With only one week left until retirement, he anticipated walking away from the post office for good with the stitching still tight and the leather still creaking.

Golden sunshine dappled the sidewalk as Harold continued on his route, and for all the people he encountered outside this early spring day, none greeted him. Sure, he noticed the glances of recognition and the occasional polite smile, but he was only too aware that few ever spoke to him and none knew his name. He, however, knew every one of theirs.

Mail is a funny thing. Mail-carriers know a good deal more about individual households than their inhabitants dare to consider. Return addresses, addressees, postmarks, company names, all these things are pieces of a puzzle that after enough years, gives attentive postal workers a fairly decent idea of what happens behind closed doors and darkened windows.

Deliver enough mail, and one starts to recognize return addresses, even when the sender’s name is not actually listed. Some companies, like credit cards and mail-order distributors, own their own zip code. To the postal worker, there is no such thing as anonymity. Harold, privy to the hypocrisy and eccentricities of the average person, wielded a knowledge of the people along his postal route that none imagined.

April Hutchence received five different culinary magazines, but apparently didn’t do much cooking because on garbage days, Harold distinctly noticed the corners of countless frozen-dinner boxes straining through the garbage bags on her sidewalk.

Mel Stark and his wife Sharon received numerous letters from what appeared to be religious organizations, but Mel also received the discreetly wrapped periodicals which every postman knows contains sexually explicit material.

Heinrich Gonzales, who received a good many items relating to foreign travel and the medical profession he surely practiced, was also the recipient of a great many late notices from various payees and collection agencies.

It was approaching 3:30 when Harold finally rounded the corner where Hickory Drive turned into Drury Lane, the final stretch of his day’s deliveries. Sitting forlornly on the sidewalk of the gray brick house number 3325, six-year old Elliot Bering sat absently nibbling the edge of a frosted sugar cookie. Harold’s mind flashed to the Lego catalogues, Ranger Rick and Highlights magazines Elliot received every month. Elliot was an exceptionally friendly boy on an otherwise unsocial route.

Elliot’s front door was open and through it Harold could identify helium-filled balloons and children running about. Harold was able to identify Mary Lam, Oliver Duckworth, and the Hill twins, Jackson and Gillian, all other children living in homes along his route. Clearly a birthday party was underway, and Harold felt a conflicting flash of irritation and curiosity that the birthday boy was not among his guests.

Upon seeing Postman Jolly, Elliot sprung to his feet eagerly.

“Good afternoon, young man,” Harold bellowed in his most jovial voice, concealing his distaste that Elliot appeared to be waiting for fat envelopes stuffed with money.

“Hi, Mr. Jolly,” Elliot replied with great seriousness. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Yes, I imagine you have been. Sorry to say there’s nothing for you today,” replied Harold, perversely satisfied at not having anything to deliver in the boy’s name, and instead handing over a stack of miscellaneous bills and solicitations addressed to the Bering adults.

Elliot took the letters looking perplexed. “Um. I was waiting for you; you need to come inside.”

Harold now noticed Mrs. Bering standing in the front doorway, arms crossed and a bemused smile on her face as she watched her son.

Elliot continued. “My mom said it’s okay. We’ve got ice-cream cake and potato chips. Can you come?”

Surprised and suddenly chastened to be invited to Elliot’s birthday party, Harold was speechless. He had been thinking of finishing his route, and going home to weed his garden with his wife. Fried hamburger patties and store-bought potato salad were on the dinner menu. As suddenly moved as he was, Harold could not imagine an afternoon with a bunch of small children pinning tails on donkeys or playing duck-duck-goose. He struggled to find kind words of refusal.

Elliot and his smiling mother, waited.

“I’m sure you don’t want an old man at your party…” Harold started.

Elliot stared at him open-mouth, unsure and at a loss.

Mrs. Bering, stepped forward from the doorstep, interrupting, “It’s not Elliot’s party,” she explained. She descended off the stoop and walked towards them. “Elliot heard you are retiring and wanted to do something. The party is for you.”

“Me?” Harold was confused and looked around himself as if there was someone else the Berings were surely speaking to. And as he glanced about he noticed a good number of people looking at them. Some peeked out windows; some poked their heads out front doors. Others were trickling towards them: walking across manicured lawns, down sidewalks, across the street; approaching with casserole dishes, gifts and envelopes. All wore welcoming smiles.

Mrs. Bering – recipient of Cooking Light magazine and correspondence from the Distance Learning Department at New York University –appeared embarrassed and apologetic. “When you’re done with your route – I know you’ve only got this street left – if you’d like to come back, it would be great. Elliot insisted it be a surprise. He did it all himself. We’ve contacted your wife, and she said she’s notified your children – they’ll all be here at four; that’s when the party is officially starting. It’s a potluck. Your wife said you had no plans tonight – I hope it’s not too inconvenient…” She rambled on, clearly reading the hesitancy and disbelief in Harold’s face.

With a shock, Harold began to absorb what she was telling him, and thought, She knows I have a wife. She knows I have kids. She knows I’m retiring. I’ve never even talked to her before – how could she possibly know these things?

In the same way that over the years Harold had passively come to “know” the residents on his mail-delivery route, so he realized, had some of those people come to know him. Without dialogue, without much at all, they had somehow picked up the necessary cues over the years. All this time he had felt invisible and unappreciated, and now, here on Drury Lane, at the end of the street marking the end of his career, he finally knew otherwise.

He dropped into a squat and looked earnestly into young Elliot’s eyes. “Elliot,” he said, speaking the boys name aloud for the first time, though he’d known it for years, since the newborn boy received his first letter from the Social Security Administration, “I would be honored to attend. Thank you for this unexpected and wonderful gift.” Elliot’s face lit up in a gap-toothed grin. “I just need to deliver a few letters and then I’ll be back.”

Harold stood with a renewed heart – a heart aching with goodwill and humility. He patted the boy on his head, delivered a smile to the many faces of the people approaching to join the party, then turned away to hurriedly finish his work.


At 1:37 PM, Blogger Gateway School and Learning Center said...

Jackson and Gillian. Ha! Such a great story. Really fun. Thanks.


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