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Postal. 

“Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” 

        Six hundred and thirty million pieces of mail per year: There’s no way to make that number sound small. Maybe that’s what made the job seem so futile. Sure, I was delivering mail, but my humble little mail route made an embarrassingly small dent in that daunting figure, and I at least like to pretend I’m making a difference. Of course, the numbers weren’t always that big. When I was hired as an Official U.S. Mail Carrier – prestigious title, I assure you – at the age of 26, the United States population had been about 42 million people smaller. That means less mail.

        If my math is right, I estimate that I got the job in the summer of 1993. On the same note, I’m thinking that I reached a state of total career-related apathy somewhere between ’97 and ’98. It hadn’t been intentional; there’s just so many times a man can recursively drive the same route over and over again, delivering the same exact mail to people that rarely change. Suburbia never reached a higher level of excitement. If someone’s mail suddenly got more scandalous, then someone else’s would slow down.

        That was another thing – I read the mail. Not only read it, but thoroughly molested it. I tore out magazine articles and attached them to my disgustingly yellow Maytag refrigerator. I filled out the surveys in Cosmopolitan. I’ve read more articles entitled some variation on “100 Ways to Please Your Man” than I care to remember. I always, always used the perfume samples wedged into the pages of beauty magazines. Then I delivered that mail. If the residents on my route noticed, they’d never mentioned it. Probably because most of them were a part of Stan’s “financial plan.”

        I can’t even be sure that Stan has ever had a legitimate job at any point during our friendship. He used to say he was a computer security consultant for a few companies in the city. He didn’t make much money. He couldn’t pay the rent for his apartment, and so he needed a roommate – That was when I came in. Stan was easy to live with. He spent nearly all of his time in his “office,” a walk-in closet that he’d filled with assorted computer equipment and stacks of CD’s. He made it impossible to bring girls home. Yeah, he’d leave you alone, but that closet would be glowing blue from the computer screens, and you couldn’t talk to the girl over the sound of his blaring Pink Floyd CD’s.

        Stan sprung the idea of making extra money off of my job just after I’d voiced my decision not to care about it. Like I said, ’97, ’98, somewhere around there. It was too repetitive. Kids put small animals in the mailboxes and occasionally threw rocks at the truck. Dogs chased me. No, that’s not just a stereotype. It happens, and I’ve got the bite marks to prove it. You know those guys who harbor a secret sense of insecurity towards their own occupation, so they look for someone else to put down? Yeah, they almost always made irritating jokes about me snapping and going on a shooting spree – Good job, middle management. If I do, your place of business is the first to go down in a glorious hailstorm of gunfire. You’ll finally make your front-page article. One of my co-workers will deliver it to your house, and I’ll read it from my prison cell. I’ll eat bad jail food and watch cable TV. Your family will eat fast food and watch cable TV. The only difference will be that they’ll have a nicer bed and I’ll be more likely to endure prison molestation. And then there’s you, the drone worker of society, now the office martyr. I don’t know who will have it the worst.

        Anyhow, I guess Stan sort of took advantage of my economic angst. 

            “Hey, Bob.” Pink Floyd was rocking too loudly. I had trouble hearing him.

            “Yeah?”

                “You don’t like being a mailman anymore, right?” I could hear the perpetual clicking of computer keys as his fingers flew over the keyboard. He rarely stopped typing. When he did, he either leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the monitor, or he punched the walls and yelled obscenities at the blue screen. I’ve never seen someone get so worked up over a job before.

            “No, not really.”

            “Would it be ok if we ripped people off, then?”

            “Yeah, I guess so.”

        It had really been as simple as that.

        The idea behind The Financial Plan was pretty simple: People bought magazine subscriptions all the time. For instance, on my route alone, 400 different people were subscribed to Playboy Magazine. It was simple to find a way not to deliver 10 or 20 of those each time a new issue came out. Stan would undercut that price, and sell those 10 or 20 to other people. Every month, I was able to steal a few hundred magazines, and Stan would sell them. 

        Bragan, Thomas. That was the first guy’s name. At least that’s what the label on the magazine had said. Stan had told me, “Either come up with a phony reason that the magazines didn’t get through, or just think of a reason not to like the guy, and that’ll be your excuse not to give him his magazine.”

        I ran with the second option. I didn’t need a fake reason to dislike these people. They annoyed me. Tom Bragan was a middle-aged man going through a midlife crisis. For the past three weeks, he’d met the mail at the mailbox every day. Before then, he’d had a job. His wife still did. I gave him his mail, and he leafed through it idly. A barely perceptible nervous frown crept across his face.

            “Excuse me…Bob?”

            “Yeah?”

            “It’s the 8th, and usually on the 8th I have a magazine that comes in.”

            “Which magazine? I don’t remember seeing it.”

            “Well…” He paused, trying to put it euphemistically. He looked at me with one of those ‘come on, you’re a man, you can identify’ glances that are invariably used to dodge the responsibility of being straightforward, and I shrugged. He spoke. “It’s…you know, some interesting reading.”

            “You mean your porn, Tom? You want the porn. Let’s be clear about it. Don’t go confusing me…if you wanted your full-frontal nudity, all you have to do is ask for it.”

            He nodded. I continued.

                “All you had to do was ask, Tom. What happens if you get another job, by the way? If your wife gets home before you and checks the mail, she’ll find it. Your subscription won’t be out for 11 more months. She’s not going to like that you’re cheating on her.”

            “I’m not cheating on her.” He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly.

            “Well, not in a literal sense, no. But come on, Tom, we all know what’s going on up in there.” I pointed to his head. He was balding. “She’s going to be pissed. She’s a nice lady. Did you know she brought me cookies, once? No joke. Oatmeal raisin. I hate oatmeal raisin, but I thought it was a nice gesture. You’d better not piss her off. I’ll deliver your phone bill late every month for a year.” 

        Ripping off the mail wasn’t hard. Selling it was evidently easier, since Stan usually did it within a day. There was a catch, though – The profit made off of the magazine sales was pretty insignificant, but with Stan’s apparently long list of shady contacts, using that money to buy various illegal substances wasn’t hard. Once a week, usually on Tuesdays, Stan gave me a list of addresses and an order number, and those patrons of our fine delivery service would receive their drug of choice with their monthly bills, letters of rejection, and Victoria’s Secret catalog.

            Greed.

            Lust..

            Complacency.

        We weren’t feeding one addiction. We were feeding a myriad. Our patrons saturated their brains with cheap talk, flashy ads, and exposed flesh the same way they stained their collective bloodstreams with intravenous drugs. I was helping, and as long as they didn’t care, I didn’t care. I gradually began to despise these people, who hid within their homes, watching television and hiding from their spouses, or feeling sick to their stomach when they glanced at their illegitimate children. They went to work and put in overtime and sexual favors for the “financial independence” they could have had long ago, had they not spent money they didn’t have on trendy cars and imported clothing. Candy-coated suburbia was rotting underneath, and I could never decide whether the drug abuse perpetuated this fact, or was a result of it. I delivered the mail to these people for three months, and gradually watched their orders grow.

        It surprised me at first, that so many people could harbor such a huge communal habit. I don’t know how Stan supplied it all, and I never asked. I was afraid he might tell me. The overwhelming majority of our customers were middle-aged men and women seeking escape from the monotony of career-dominated life, though almost as many were housewives, pumping amphetamines to “get that edge on the work day,” to have the energy necessary to clean the house, pay the bills, pick the kids up from school.

        I wanted them to slow down.  

        As I said, during my third month delivering our little bonuses in the mail, things ceased to run so smoothly. There was this guy; aside from his dog, he lived alone. Golden retriever. The guy’s name was Howard. Nice enough guy, though the obnoxiously long driveway leading up to his secluded house in the back of his neighborhood meant I never really saw him, ‘cept once or twice. Either way, I was nervous about the amount of meth I was leaving in his mailbox on Mondays. This particular week, he hadn’t picked it up yet. It was a Thursday.

        For the next several days, I continued to stuff mail into his increasingly cramped mailbox. The following Thursday, I had another drug order to drop off, and the previous one was still there, crammed into the back of the mailbox. I pulled my truck over, stepping out of the passenger side and making my way up his driveway. His dog didn’t attack me. In fact, I didn’t see it. The grass was growing over the edges of his driveway, and peeking through the cracks in the concrete. A small pile of newspapers had collected in the front of his recently overgrown lawn. His car, however –a rusted out El Camino— was still in the driveway.

        It was finding the dog that set the tone. Pissed off. You don’t leave a dog chained to its doghouse without food for that long. When I say “that long,” I don’t know how long it was, but the dog looked pretty damned emaciated, and was just sort of lying on its side. Not dead or anything, but not exactly having a good day. You don’t do that to animals. They’re defenseless.

        I just assumed he was lazy. I walked around to his front door, and rang the doorbell. I waited. Waited some more. Rang. Waited. I cursed under my breath, and went around to the back door, stopping briefly on the way to fill up his dog’s food bowl and leave it next to the dog, not sure if the animal had enough strength to drag itself to it. The back door was open. The stench of stale air and marijuana smoke hit me as I slid the door open. Walking through the door was stepping into a scene from a movie, cold and unfeeling, and me the actor on the wrong set – the only thing that I couldn’t rationalize as a prop was Howard, lying face up on the living room floor.

        Very much dead.

        I’d always heard that death has a certain atmosphere, a certain stench, a certain pale languidity that supersedes everything else about the personality of a corpse. I got none of that. The atmosphere was that of semi-comfortable living, the stench a sickening mixture of smoke, drugs, new leather, old leather, microwave meals, and air fresheners. No, death’s dead giveaway was the eyes. I recognized them. Howard’s gaze was the same one I met at the mailbox every Tuesday, the glazed-over yet strangely malignant stare from the languid replicas of life I called customers. It wasn’t the morbid reality of Howard’s unfortunate demise that struck me. It was the fact that I was making a living by assisting a few hundred more Howards in their own slow suicides once a week, one delivery at a time. I might as well have fallen head first into the postal stereotype.

        I guess it simply hadn’t occurred to me that in leeching off of human characteristics that I saw as evidently self-destructive, I wasn’t helping anything. Or, well, that’s not true – I knew I was perpetuating it. I just didn’t care, because it had never occurred to me that I might be able to change it. And even as I helped Howard’s dog struggle to climb up into the passenger’s seat of my mail truck, I hadn’t really gotten that. All I was sure of was had I not given Howard the drugs to overdose on, he wouldn’t have died. At least not then, and not there, and not with me connected. 

        I didn’t make the rest of my deliveries. Instead of going to lunch, I went to the veterinarian’s office, where I received a good verbal grilling before they’d help the dog. They wanted to know if I’d “neglected to feed it.” I told them I hadn’t. They wanted to know if I’d  “beaten it.” I informed them that the “it” they were continually referring to was very clearly a “he,” if they’d care to take a look, and that as veterinarians they ought to worry less about who to blame for animal cruelty and more about fixing a broken dog. I was home before the end of my lunch break. Stan wasn’t. Temporarily hijacking his computer, I set to work on what I hoped would absolve me of the sins of the past three months. I’m sure it sounds as futile to you as it did to me.

        The keyboard felt foreign, the chair strangely uncomfortable. Somehow, I felt it was appropriate that the object that was so instrumental to Stan’s success in his part of the scam – Really, the most important part – would now be used to bring the whole thing down. If possible. My only real goal was subversion, just like before, but different this time.    

        Tuesday.

        I had the drugs again, and no desire to deliver them. I didn’t have any intentions of delivering another Howard into the recesses of a grave. I considered going to the police with it – perhaps they’d offer reward money – but the thought made me nervous. I’d been worried about police involvement from the beginning. After all, it only took one person cracking and calling the cops to bring down everyone involved in the Financial Plan. Stan assured me that the people I was delivering to were all addicts, and that they needed their fix much more than they needed a clear conscience. I didn’t know what do with any of it, so I just let it pile up in the back of the truck, behind the mail. Under normal circumstances, the truck would be returned to the post office at the end of the day, and anything left in the truck would have been discovered. However, due to renovations and space issues, mail curriers were given the esteemed privilege of keeping their mail trucks on their own property until everything was cleared up. I wasn’t thinking about what to do with the drugs so much, though.

        I had new packages to deliver. They looked like the old ones, but they weren’t. They were empty. Almost.                

       Wednesday. Frustration. The customers wanted their drugs.

        I considered it a bad sign that the morning’s first delivery was interrupted by a graying soccer mom in her early forties. One Mrs. Angie Blessing, if my memory serves correctly. Her hands on her hips, she leaned against the side of her brick mailbox, smoking a cigarette anxiously. Howard’s dog was in the passenger seat, newly released from the vet’s office. Under the glare of her scrutinizing gaze, he jumped out of the seat, crawling into a lonely space between the towering stacks of mail. In her hand she clutched a half-crushed cardboard box, which she tossed into the mail truck. “What the hell is this?” Her tone was openly accusatory.

        I picked up the box, opening it up. It was empty, aside from a small slip of paper. In bold text, the following words were printed: 

 

Stop pretending that you’re happy

 

        I’d put a different message inside each fake drug package. I felt like it was the personal touches that would make my aggressive new campaign worthwhile. I felt like running with the ignorance plea, though. I looked at her and shrugged, tossing it back. She continued.

        “You don’t pull this bullshit with me, ok? I’ve got things to do.” She accentuated every sentence with a violent hand motion, her jitteriness manifesting itself in an arrhythmic foot tap and spiteful stare. She took another exaggerated drag on her cigarette, before tossing it to the ground. She stomped it out with the padded bottom of a slipper, then immediately lit another. “I give your friend money, you give me what I need. This is real simple arrangement.” The lines around her face were pronounced beyond her years. I handed her the note, then accelerated, ignoring the rest of her tirade.

        I’d left the notes in the mailbox of every drug user on my route. Each was written individually, though I didn’t really know most of the people on my route, so what resulted was a series of semi-profound statements that I could only speculate would mean something to them, if they cared to think about it.

        To Billy Hedrick, a struggling architect and full-time workaholic

The money won’t buy you sleep

 

        To Virginia Cunningham, administrative assistant for a large firm by day, highly-paid exotic dancer by night: 

 

Beauty is a false god.

 

        Hundreds of short notes, all delivered in the same packaging as marijuana, heroin, LSD, ecstasy. Aside from Mrs. Blessing, nobody else spoke to me about the switching. As usual, they stayed locked inside their homes. Stan, however, was brooding. Visibly frustrated, he made a daily habit of smashing things in his “office.” He yelled obscenities at names I’d never heard before, and occasionally a CD flew out of the door, skimming across the apartment kitchen and lodging itself into a couch or wall. It took him two days to work up the resolve to confront me, despite the fact that both he and I were losing incredible amounts of money. Apparently when it all comes down to the grind, there’s a reason Stan hangs out in a dimly lit closet all day and makes money through scams at night – He’s a pansy, and he wants to partake in actual human interaction about as much as he wants to partake in a vasectomy.

        I was hunched quietly over our disintegrating wooden table in what the landlord dared call a kitchen, eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. You want to know what annoyed me to no end the first week I moved in with Stan? He’d tell me not to “hog all the Captain Crunch.” Does the box say “Captain” on it? No. It says “Cap’n.” I swear, I wanted to hit him every time he ever ate breakfast with me.

        I grabbed a handful of cereal from the box, tossing it onto the linoleum beside me. Syd –that’s what I renamed Howard’s dog, in mocking honor Stan’s musical taste— lapped it up off of the floor, then rolled over onto his side, staring blankly forward, tail wagging gently. Currently, Stan’s music wasn’t too loud, and I could faintly hear the television in the room next to him. A reporter was droning endlessly about a major arrest in the process, but was cutting to a commercial break. Body shampoo

        A crumpled up ball of paper hit the table, sliding across the glazed-over plane before rolling against the side of my bowl. I set down my spoon, momentarily glancing at my rippling reflection across the surface of the milk, partially blocked by the hard, crunchy little pieces of whole-grain goodness. I uncrumpled the ball of paper. I remembered this note; it was my personal favorite, written to Mark Edwards, a member of the school board in a nearby county known for its ultra-conservatism. From reading his mail, I knew a large part of what Mr. Edwards did was ban books from the public school system. When his office deemed a book inappropriate for kids to read, they were disposed of. My note read as follows:

 

If book companies start publishing flame-retardant books, will you burn the kids instead?

 

        The only explanation I offered Stan was an expressionless glance. He glared back indignantly, pushing his wire frame glasses up his nose a little. “If you’re not going to make the deliveries, I will. I’ll get in the mail truck right now, and I’ll go drop off the merchandise. You can’t back out halfway through the month.” He picked my keys up from the counter, and put them into his pocket. I shrugged. I knew he was too lazy to do it himself.

        The doorbell rang. Syd barked wildly, jumping at the front door, leaving a trail of dirty scratch marks across it. Stan walked to the bedroom and moved towards the window, clandestinely sliding back the curtains to peer outside. The doorbell rang again, and I slid open the chain lock, opening the door.

        A uniformed police officer stood on the walkway. The glare from the sunlight reflected off of his sunglasses, and I squinted, holding up a hand for cover.

        “Hello, Mr. Clairborne?”

        I shook my head. It occurred to me that I’d never heard Stan’s last name before. I saw the flicker of multi-colored lights outside the doorway, and pushed my head outside a bit, surveying the scene. Three squad cars had parked themselves perpendicular to our apartment building’s sidewalk, and policemen stood behind them, crossing their arms in a sort of pseudo-casual manner, leaving enough room to quickly reach for their weapons if need be. Apparently this was considered a fairly large-scale drug bust. Rightly so. I noticed all this, and instinctively looked back towards the bedroom. Stan was gone, and the bedroom window was open, the curtains fluttering in the breeze.

        Just like Stan – short, to the point, no unnecessary interaction. I saw him running across the parking lot, taking an awkward looking leap and dive through the driver’s side window of the mail truck, and half-climbing, half-falling into the driver’s seat.

        "Sorry Officer, Mr. Clairborne isn’t in right now. He seems to be escaping in that mail truck though, if you care to chase him.”

        I’d like to be able to say we engaged in an A-team-esque car chase that resulted in several million dollars of collateral damage and casualties numbering at least in the double digits, but it was nothing so spectacular. In retrospect, I suppose Stan didn’t think he’d be noticed so quickly. He still hadn’t realized that this was something more, at least in my mind, than making money off of a conveniently placed system. He didn’t realize that I wouldn’t even hesitate to point out to the police that he was leaving.

        The boxy mail truck lurched forward as Stan threw it into a higher gear, gaining a surprising amount of acceleration across the parking lot before launching out onto the road. The officer at my door yelled at the policemen at the cars, and almost immediately behind followed the three squad cars. Officer Edwards –I could see his nametag now— slapped a pair of seemingly unwarranted handcuffs on me, totally unannounced, and hurriedly grabbed hold of my wrists, pulling me towards the parking lot. “Where’s a car we can use?” he asked, sounding much more nervous than I was.

        I nodded towards the Volvo. “The key’s in my pocket.”

To understand the events that would occur momentarily, one must understand a few things:

1)        My car starts only sporadically. As a result, I have Stan’s spare key.

2)       Stan’s car starts perfectly, and is almost invariably parked next to my truck.

3)       A mail truck doesn’t go very fast, and squad cars do.

4)       Stan’s Volvo doesn’t go very fast, either. It’s not a mail truck, though.

5)     Volvo is rated number one in safety by Consumer Reports.

        Seconds later, the dirty white Volvo rocketed out of the parking lot, angrily churning out black plumes of smoke. Stan had taken the liberty of turning off of the main road as quickly as possible, taking a shortcut to nowhere through a recently pillaged forest. The marks of burning tire treads on the thick pavement arced gracefully from the main road onto a dirt road, bordered by woods and the occasional patch of subdivision development work.

        “Do you spend a lot of time on this side of town?” I asked amicably, rolling up the Volvo’s window to avoid choking on the cloud of dust kicked up by the combination of squealing tires and uneven road.

        Officer Edwards didn’t respond. Instead, he muttered some really impressive-sounding non-sense into his intercom.

        “I only ask,” I continued, “because Stan’s heading straight for the quarry.” I paused. He didn’t seem to be listening. His eyes were riveted forward, and he focused intently on picking a line through the treacherous bumps. I decided to make the connections for him: “And the road ends. And there’s water. And he doesn’t know.”

        I was still watching the officer’s facial expressions when the car threw itself into an abrupt slide, fishtailing, the cop clutching the handbrake. Through the haze of whirling dust, I could see that he’d stopped mere inches from hitting the back of one of the preceding squad cars, which had formed a sort of semi-circle around my mail truck. The truck was perched precariously on the edge of the quarry, front tires dangling over the edge.

        The police yelled at Stan and drew weapons, cocking pistols and aiming them in his general direction. He backed up, bumping softly into the back of the truck. The boxy mail vehicle groaned on its axles, leaning forward a bit, and paused momentarily, as if to rub it in when it actually did fall. And fall it did, plummeting onto the dangerous combination of large rocks and shallow water below, smashing into the ground and erupting into flames. It produced an acrid gray smoke; the disgustingly dizzying kind produced only through the combustion of narcotics.  

        Stan vs. Me, in the eyes of police, was an easy call. I told them Stan had done it all, Stan told them the truth, and in the end, they went with the friendly and upstanding mail carrier over the unemployed drug dealer and recent fugitive. Since I was a nice guy, they were willing to believe most of what I told them, and I was awarded a slap on the wrist for negligence and little else. Stan was awarded the opportunity to watch cable TV from a cramped cell and spends hours lifting weights with men four times his size.

        In the end, my assault on society hadn’t gone unnoticed. Society, in fact, had turned the other cheek only long enough for me to get my confidence up, at which point intervention had been necessary...

        See, it was the television that gave us away. News reporters had been enjoying a field day with stories about a dead guy whose body said ‘drug overdose’ but whose house had clearly been broken into, and his dog stolen. Stolen dog. New dog in the apartment next door. Sketchy anonymous guys in the apartment next door. They did some math. Crazy. Either way, the amount of drugs delivered was never really divulged; most of it had burned away.

        As for myself, I took Syd and Stan’s Volvo, and drove away. I haven’t missed the job.

        Everything will be OK.