by Richard Weems
I: A Problem
All the mailboxes in our community are unique, some in color and
style, others in shape. The Randstons have a large head that smiles menacingly when the
light catches it right. Mail goes in through the part in its hair, out the mouth.
Neighborhood kids feed it gravel, leaves, an occasional dead mouse. Theresa and I have
taken great care in choosing ours: pink with blue lettering, "Our Home." White
bow ties encircle the logo.
Just like Sunday evenings, when most everyone in Elm
Acres (a pleasant-enough-looking development of equidistant duplexes) is either accepting
an invitation to dinner or hosting a couple or two themselves, the mail is a common
denominator in our community. On the way to work, one becomes accustomed to the sight of
raised flags, the leg in the air on the Cruzes crocodile box, as if waiting to be
called on. Coming home, one expects those flags lowered, the boxes bursting with a U of
manila envelopes and magazines, letters resting nicely in the bottom curve.
Theresa and me, our problem is the Chevy van with
smoky windows thats parked in front of our mailbox. In place of delivering our mail,
the mailman has been leaving angry notes on the vans windshield explaining how the
presence of vehicles parked malapropos hindered the unexpurgated
completion of a federally assigned task. The grammar is exquisite, the font crisp,
as if done on a laser printer. Questions? Contact the postmaster.
No one I know has any connection to the van, or at
least admits to it. A van like that (Illinois plates, rust around the handles, a
Harley-Davidson magnet on the side) becomes an immediate topic of conversation in my
community. A van like that blocking mail delivery is an absolute scandal.
On my way home, I can feel people watching me, peeking
from behind curtains, stealing glimpses from the corners of their eyes. Theresa is too
embarrassed to talk to anyone or leave the house. When neighbors call, she is curt with
them, always with an excuse: a cake is burning, she has dye to wash out, another call is
coming in, something important.
The first two notes were an inconvenience, the third a
nuisance. No flyers or junk mail, no free samples. No guaranteed winnings from
Publishers ClearingHouse. Theresa and I spend our evenings in an uneasy quiet. No
sales to discuss, no catalog items to point out to each other, nothing to distract us from
our situation. We used to read aloud the form letter invitations to try the MasterCard
Platinum or join the National Geographic Society as if they were letters from old
acquaintances. We felt like everyone else then.
Now, three days worth of outgoing mail sits on
the coffee table before usbills due, business reply mail, a radio surveynext
to three of our mailmans notes, lined side by side. Every now and then Theresa sees
somehow they are not yet lined up perfectly and makes adjustments.
When weve had enough of our silence, we watch
television, and every now and then we fancy ourselves like the people in that box who can
lead normal lives and talk to others about their problems and solve them in thirty minutes
or less. It is then that we will hold hands, but for only a few moments, for then our
silence grows, things boiling inside me, and we let go of each other before anything else
It is the kind of day you can tell is cold from just
looking out the window. The very clouds look frozen.
Though theres already a note on the vans
windshield when I come home, I remove the pile of outgoing mail with feigned delight, as
if the old, stale envelopes in my hand were crisp, glossy flyers with coupons galore, or
junk mail making offers in large capital letters that strain the seams of the #10 regular
business envelopes with the cellophane-covered front windows (Aah, the smell of unopened
What hangs heavy in my gut, though, is the knowledge
that nobody will believe this façade. Martin, our mailman, is of the new breed of mail
carriers: systematic, precise, at work six days a week. No sense of justice, no sympathy
for keeping the status quo. It is only through our elderly neighbors, who have nothing
better to do than wait by their mailboxes at 3:00 p.m. weekdays, 10:00 a.m. Saturdays,
that Theresa and I know his name at all. His postal jeep moves robotically through Elm
Acres, the tires stopping, it seems, on the very inch they have stopped on every day.
Theresa watches from the front window when Martin comes by, but even when we did get mail,
she wouldnt dare step out the door until he was at least two boxes past.
I take the note, which is addressed, as always,
"Dear Postal Customer," though Theresa wants me to leave it behind to give the
vans owner a hint to move. Even approaching the van makes my neck bristle, as though
there were someone behind those windows made dark by paintings of Arizona sunsets.
Sometimes I think Ive caught a whiff of rotting corpses, stowed away until police
surveillance cools off.
Pat from the adjoining house has come out, accompanied
by the swishing of his pajama bottoms. He is considering the sky, one hand hanging
leisurely in the pocket of his bathrobe, as he strolls towards the curb. Pats other
hand keeps a loose leash on Misha, his basenji, who is stalking Pats ankles as if
they were a natural enemy.
"Cold," Pat decides aloud when he reaches
his barn-shaped mailbox. He rubs his arms and whoops at the chill. Misha yelps at the
sudden pulls on her collar. Pat is a pit boss at a casino, third shift. After removing a
small pile of letters from his box, he takes a fresh outgoing pile from his robe and
inserts them through the barn door. Instead of a flag, a rooster flies.
I shove the note deep, deep into my pocket and turn
towards my house. "It was warmer earlier," I say hastily, "when the sun was
all the way up."
Pat is already musing over return addresses.
"Damn psychic networks," he grumbles. "You call once, and here you are, on
every mailing list."
I hum sympathetically, almost on my front porch now.
But then, "Phil?" Pat calls.
I stop and bounce slightly, anxious to be back inside.
"I keep getting stuff for a Tony White. He the
guy before me?"
I shrug, though I remember Tony White well, proudly
showing off the letters hed get from the child in a starving land he sponsored. He
even carried around the kids picturea creature black as night, kneeling on
infertile ground, smiling with broken teeth.
Pat shakes his head and pulls back Misha, who is
sniffing her way off the curb. "Just that I keep getting porn stuff in his
name." He holds up the magazine-sized envelope as he pulls Misha along back towards
his own house. "Really savage stuff, too."
I watch as Pat puts a couple envelopes between his
teeth, then folds the porn mail into his robe pocket. Who would have thought? A normal
man, Tony White. A young bank executive, dating a tall, blonde woman his age who wore
long-sleeved business outfits with scarves, sometimes turtleneck aerobic wear, always
something up to the wrists and chin. I cant help rethinking now what I once thought
were innocuous, playful squeals coming through the adjoining wall of our duplex. What
images transpired late at night as his living room windows flickered television blue?
Theresa is in the kitchen, clearly disappointed.
Shes using both hands to drink her coffee. I hold out the fourth note for our
collection, though I cant imagine why shed want to see it.
"Is he allowed to just not deliver our
mail?" She puts her Garfield mug on the counter, brings her fingers to her temples.
"Can he just go back to headquarters, or wherever, drop off our mail and tell them,
Sorry, that vans still there?"
I want to tell her he cant, though Im not
sure, but then an even worse thought hits me: Martin at home, feet up before a TV, paging
through my Sharper Image catalog, checking out the balance on the Visa Gold, steaming off
Bugs Bunny stamps for his collection (he has to be something like thisno one can be
that precise and lifeless). But Theresas hands are nervous already, moving between
her forehead and the coffee. She needs practical advice, directing toward a course of
action, not more trouble, and certainly no stories about how the former neighbor we had
over for dinner on occasion, the one who reciprocated, was receiving tapes with group sex,
sodomy, maybe worse.
"Can a pilot," I suggest, "fly to Paris
and not land because he doesnt like the runway hes assigned?"
"Exactly." Theresa makes a fist and feigns
banging it on the counter.
"Can he just fly back and tell them,
In the end, she doesnt strike; she lays her fist
quietly on the Formica, as though she were setting down someone elses kitten, then
picks up her mug again thoughtfully.
After a moment, she nods in resolution, her bob
swinging momentarily into her face. She says, "Complain to the post office,"
then, of course, turns to me, as if we have never discussed this before. I thought she
understood the embarrassment of it, the vulnerability of making an announcement like this
before the whole post office, regardless that the post office is closed by the time
Im off work. It is for the same reason that I leave our mail to be picked up by
Martin and dont drop it off in any pedestrian, public box: around here things are
not done that way.
I know shes only nervous and desperate.
House-bound for four days now, she doesnt bother changing out of her bathrobe
anymore, but still I get defensive when she reminds me that Im off Saturdays and I
have nothing better to do anyway, so I tell her that Pat saw me taking the latest note off
the van and even commented on our predicament, though he didnt, but I cant
help myself. I enjoy her shock, the way the mug falters in her grip, threatening to send
coffee and shards of Garfield everywhere, but soon comes the regret, and I go back to how
I always feel: knowing my actions never help things, not a phone call, not consulting the
best psychiatrists, not touching Theresas hair, nothing...
"You cant go on weekdays," Theresa
reminds me. "We cant go another week without mail! Were good people,
arent we? We look like good people. Were good people." She brings her
coffee to her lipsforcefully, it seems, as if she were cutting herself off.
I grimace and shrug, helplessly.
II: Sunday, a Day of Rest and a Dinner Invitation
Theresa has given up on us ever being part of the
community again. Saturday morning, I stood by our mailbox and waved to Martin as he
approached. I held up a handful of outgoing mail, fanned out Japanese-style, for everyone
to see. As Martin left another note under the vans wiper, I called out, "Nice
day, eh, Martin?" Theresa thinks I did this because of my drinking, but I denied it.
I couldnt even remember how much I drank the night before.
Martin didnt even acknowledge my presence. His
movements remained mechanical, unattached, his uniform cap perched exquisitely on his
head, but still I kept on, even as he puttered along to the next box. "Nice day,
wouldnt you say? Wouldnt you say so, Martin? Did you hear about the Arctic
front moving in?" I was screaming by this point, howling. I snatched Martins
latest note, threw it to the ground and stomped it to oblivion.
"Supposed to be real cold by Monday,
yes sir, really really cold."
Theresa was crying when I got back to the house. It
seemed only natural to grab her arm and yell in her face.
"You wanted me to talk to him. He didnt
have much to say, Theresa, what do you think of that, huh? You want me to write him a
To Theresa, it wasnt the last straw that only
the Kakolyrises, the most spurned household in Elm Acres, invited us to Sunday dinner. The
last straw was that I accepted.
The invitation was for dinner and drinks, though we
start with the latter. Douglas Kakolyris, a contractor with forearms the size of my
calves, makes what can be loosely called martinisAbsolut stirred with a
vermouth-dipped spoon. Theresa has three. She walks unsteadily, her fingers at her chin,
when coming back from the bathroom for the eighth time. She refuses all my assistance,
even an inconspicuous hand on the small of her back. Weve been fighting like this: I
yell at the mailman, she burns my pancakes; I yell at her, she throws away the remote
control; I accept the Kakolyrises' invitation (which came, curiously enough, just minutes
after the incident with Martin), she refuses to shower. She merely puts on a clean dress
and a lot of perfume.
Since the beginning of the evening, Douglas has been
on about his latest job, the drywall and 1/4" piping and the goddamn roofers. He
grips my shoulder as we sit together of the sofa, as if to make sure I dont run
away. Douglas is a huge man, his upper body a wrecking ball with arms. The very weight of
his hand makes my shoulder perspire.
Theresa and Lulu, Douglass wife, take the
loveseat. They angle toward each other, their knees almost touching. Lulu is round and
Asian and tiny. Her feet dangle. Douglas could hide her from anyones view.
And before Douglas can continue with his discourse on
the techniques of spackle, Theresa blurts out, "Theres a van in front of our
mailbox, and Phil doesnt know how to do much about it, doesnt know how to do
much about anything," and nods to meround six. "Martin hasnt brought
our mail for almost a week."
"A week?" Douglass great and round and
Greek eyes are wide with what must be forced bewilderment. How can they not know? For a
moment, Im suspicious and wonder what else they could want from us.
But it is still good to have someone who actually
cares to listen.
"A van?" Lulu is leaning forward on her
knees now, about to slip off the loveseat. "You could have it towed."
"That might do it." Douglas claps his meaty
hand to my shoulder again. He leans in close so I can smell the bourbon on his breath.
"Its just been sitting there, right? By this time, I think you can assume
I squirm a bit. "I dont know," I say.
I can only imagine men in dirty flannel shirts and baseball caps with various insignia
keeping at bay their unkempt hair, the kind of people who must own a van like that. They
are banging on my front door, screaming, "Where the hell is it? Get out here!"
"We dont know what to do," Theresa
continues. "I cant tell you what its like without mail." She picks
up her fourth martini, the one she told Douglas not to make. "You see things around
the house youve been wanting to forget." She blows me a kiss.
There is good reason why the Kakolyrises are the
outcasts of our community. They live among the back lots, where the cheap units are being
built. The area is unsightly, with tracks of red dirt and randomly placed stacks of cinder
block. Douglas only has any money because of a lawsuit from a bad accident involving a
ladder and a trowel. Its his excuse to sit around, tell others what to do and get so
enormously fat. Through his white Arrow shirt I can see his scara long,
lightning-bolt seam along the side of his chest that is pinched and puffy where the rolls
of his fat meet.
Lulu is a Korean mail-order bride Douglas bought when
his settlement came in. Rumor has it she was a dancer in her native land. Mrs. Dahl who
lives down the lane from them claims that Lulu never wears underwear, which causes quite a
stir with the neighborhood boys when she steps out on a windy day in her mini-kimono.
Korean women, I find, tend to be the least attractive of the Eastern stock, and Lulu
proves my point. Her cheeks balloon up under her tiny eyes, and the way her fallen perm
flops over her face makes one think of a dark sheepdog. Her thighs threaten to burst her
stretch pants. I've heard that on their anniversary she relives her dancing years and
inserts rolls of nickels, sticks of gum and bananas into herself for her husbands
pleasure. Some say she can chew the gum.
Now Theresa is on the verge of telling them everything
"We have to do something," she says.
Despite the motion it creates, I barely notice the
exchange the Kakolyrises pull. Deftly, Douglas rises from the sofa as Lulu lowers herself
from her seat. With but one step, Douglas is on the loveseat, and Lulu plops down into the
impression left in what must be Douglass favorite spot next to me. Their movements
are smooth and quiet. The springs dont even creak when Douglas sits by my wife,
though the imbalance of his bulk forces Theresa to lean in toward him. From another
perspective, it might have looked like a dance step: simple, rehearsed, refined, all
motion restricted to what was absolutely necessary.
"It would have been nice," Theresa says
dreamily. "We could have been a regular family once. We had promise. What went wrong,
anyway?" She looks at me, and I burn with shame. How long have we kept this from
others? I wonder. How long have Theresa and I forced ourselves silent and tried acting
just like everyone else, even inside our own house? Somehow, Im glad its been
First I notice the look exchanged between the
Kakolyrises. A look of acknowledgment, of taking note.
I then notice Douglass hand on Theresas
"You should drink that," he says, motioning
to Theresas fourth martini. "Itll get warm."
Theresa finishes her martini in tiny gulps. Douglas
puts his other hand on her back, and rubs it in tight, tiny circles, as if to coax her on,
or ease her nausea.
And only now does it occur to me, so simply that I can
hardly believe I never noticed it before: there are no smells of dinner, no sounds of lids
shaking from the pressure of simmering liquids underneath. No comforting hum from a
"So have you talked to Martin?" Lulu asks.
"Maybe theres an arrangement you can make. Have you gone to the post
I frown thoughtfully, but again I can feel the anger
rising in me, the need to lash out. Theresas lips are still on her martini, and I
find it a prime opportunity to strike back at her. I tell all, proudly and with volume,
about Tony White, the very Tony White who used to live next door to Theresa and me. I add
terms like pederast, bestiality and snuff films for
effect, though as far as I can tell, Tony White might have been a good friend of the
Kakolyrises. Maybe they swapped tapes on occasion.
Theresa looks at me with some surprise, but what
really hits me is the way the Kakolyrises laugh. Douglas even shakes his head, saying,
"And I thought I knew it all."
Elm Acres then opens up to me as if a multitude of car
bombs suddenly blew off the front of every duplex. Tony White: A mild-mannered-looking
bank administrator who paid his bills, got his mail, drove a nice car. So what if the
images he played on TV late at night were less than seemly, less than legal? So what if he
did things with his girlfriend so that in the high heat of summer she wore scarves and
long sleeve jackets? All that mattered to anyone was that he went to work every day, got
his mail and showed us what we wanted to see. I take in a deep breath with my discovery,
and the air feels good.
Then Lulu puts her hand on mine and, looking into my
eyes, assures me, "The van will move itself."
This is all I wanted to hear for a while, but now I
need more, much more, and Lulu seems to know this and responds:
"It will all be taken care of tomorrow, or the
day after. Soon enough that you wont have to do a thing about it." She raises
her hand to my cheek and gives me an adoring pat. "No ones going to look at you
strange anymore. You can do all you are doing right now, and no one is going to care,
because Martin is going to stop by your house six days a week, just like everyone else,
and that will be that."
"Do you think so?" My voice is barely a
whisper, it cracks so.
Lulu gets up and goes into the kitchen.
"Finish your beer," she calls when there.
There is a silence as I gulp down the rest of my
Heineken. There we are, Theresa, Douglas and me, staring straight ahead of each other,
eyes not meeting, our glasses empty, the drapes all shut. In this moment I love Theresa
fiercely, so much I want to cry out about it, but I know we will have plenty of time
Then Douglas suggests, "Lulu may need a hand with
that next round of drinks," and I comply. Almost as soon as I am out of the room, I
notice a great stillness behind me. It is stillness free of tensiona great
releasinginterrupted only by the occasional sound of something wet.
Lulu is leaning on the sink, wiping off a drinking
glass. By impulse alone, I come up behind her and put my hands on her hips. I rub up and
down the polyester from the elastic waistband to the initial bulge of her thighs. She
smells sour this close; her hair reeks of activator.
"Not so hard," she says. "Ill
break a glass," but I cant stop, and I dare to bring my hands higher, even to
the flap where her breasts begin.
Without rushing, she puts down the glass and turns to
face me. Her mouth is soft and wet and tastes remotely metallic. We stop and I pull her to
me so I dont have to look in her eyes.
"Were good people," I say.
"Theresa and me."
"Yes," Lulu says. The side of her mouth is
pressed against my chest.
"Were still going to shun you," I tell
her, "just like everyone else. Were going to spread stories about you and make
fun of you and make sure everyone else knows were doing that."
"Of course," Lulu says as she touches that
part of me no ones reached in years. "Come over whenever you like."