McCreedy is wearing the slow grimace he gets from indigestion or too much booze.
Oh, lord, he says, tied one on last night.
Darrel is tossing the bins. The bins catch what the machines, due to illegibility or tearing or the fickleness of machines, do not. He does not look up.
Yeah? he says.
Yeah, McCreedy says, but I’ll tell you what.
Now Darrel looks at McCreedy, not to see him, but to relieve his eyes from the strain of his work at the bins. He moves his fingers, one after another, in small circles like the doctor taught him.
I’ll tell you what.
I’d do it all over again, McCreedy says, and he erupts with a laugh that reddens his neck and forehead but leaves his cheeks dust white. His jowls and the fat of his belly shake. Darrel cannot help but laugh along. McCreedy has no faculty for regret.
Ash calls, but Darrel is half-asleep in the easy chair with his feet up and by the time he awakens and yanks the lever that lowers the footrest up and forward and shuffles to the phone with his teeth set and his knees singing the answering machine had already beeped and clicked and is rewinding the tape.
Hey, dad, it’s me. Just calling to, you know, see how things are. Don’t know if you’re at work or what. Nothing urgent. Sorry for. I’m sorry that I didn’t call last week. So. Not very good about remembering things like that. Or, I try not to, you know? Hope you’re okay. Sorry again.
She does not call often and she never leaves her number. Her mother was not much for the phone, either.
Today, like every day, there are hundreds but one for some reason stands out.
On the front: men who are uniformly bald and grinning and stripped to their shorts in an ankle’s depth of snow. They stand in a semi-circle, steaming from their body heat, around a break in the ice. Everything but the pink of their skin and the blue of the sky and water is an impossibly bright white. Above them in red: A Warm Hello From Nova Scotia! On the back: Block letters. The fineness of the strokes and the odd mid-letter break and scuff indicates a mechanical pencil. B, thought you might get a kick out of this. The weather here isn’t always that cold, but the men are all that old and fat. Seriously. I haven’t met a man my age this whole time. I can’t wait to get home. Miss you, Wendy. It is addressed to Elizabeth Conroy in 39534. A stamp Darrel has not seen before. Canadian. A black bird with a long neck.
He looks around quickly and slips it into the interior pocket of his thin blue coat.
The break room still smells like cigarettes from when that was what a break meant. It has yellowed like an old mug. Every year they announce that they are working on getting a new building, state of the art, ergonomic, and every year they find that there is no room in the budget. They said privatization would change things.
Petrocelli sits down.
Darrel, he says, do you have a minute?
Sure thing, Darrel says. He sets his sandwich in its Tupperware and marks his spot in the Tribune with the red of the pen he keeps in his lapel pocket.
Well, Petrocelli says, and you know I hate to do this, but—
Here it comes.
Petrocelli’s smile is a thin flat line.
You know I do, he says. But, as you might have heard, we’re really struggling on second shift, and—
And I know you could help us out there.
Gene, how long have I been here? How long? You know perfectly well that I’ve been here too damn long for this kind of nonsense. You can’t pull this shit.
I’m asking for your help, Darrel. I’m not reassigning you. Of course I wouldn’t do that. It’d only be—
Would you be willing to spend some time up front for a little while, so we could move Sammy around?
It had been six years since Petrocelli last thought to move Darrel. This was before Gene’s hands trembled, before his kid killed himself at art school in Portland. Gene talked more then, but the conversation went the same way.
Well, he says. Thought I’d ask.
Darrel picks up his sandwich and takes a bite. Gene hears the crunch of white-green lettuce and looks away.
Renita spoke slower, with more care, than anybody Darrel had ever met. When she spoke it was final and indelible. It was not opinion, or feeling, or sense. It was statement of fact.
He was tall then, too, but thin, with drawn cheeks and a long chin. He had an idea of what women thought when they looked at him. He had set his bag on the sidewalk to take a load off, to stretch his legs and his back, and when he looked up she was there. Her hair was straightened and flipped. Her dress was blue with black polka dots.
My momma tells me carrying mail’s a good living, she said.
He looked at her.
I suppose it could be worse, he said.
Three weeks later, on the Tuesday before the Thursday when he first mustered to ask her out, Darrel handed Renita two bills and a circular addressed to her father. He stopped, and turned over his shoulder.
How come you and your momma talk about carrying the mail? he said.
When there’s not much to talk about, I talk about you, she said and looked him in the eye.
Today, like every day, there are hundreds but one stands out.
On the front: A coastline more beautiful than any Darrel had ever ventured to dream of. White seafoam tossed upon shining granite cliffs. The water a silverstrewn blue. Squat, bent pines clinging to the stone. On the back, a florid cursive and the bold black of a costly pen: Mom, Edward and I hiked this yesterday. It was amazing. We’re having the best time. You and Dad would love it. Love you and talk to you soon, Me. A Liberty Bell stamp. Addressed to Rebecca Walters in 10001.
With a magnifying glass in the half light of the bathroom stall, he reads the small black typeset at the bottom of the card: Mendocino County.
Before he started the carriers were all white men, and then it was all black men. Now it seems to be all Orientals. And women. Oriental women. A couple Hispanics, too.
Every day Darrel sees them come in from their routes, their faces scarlet from the cold or freckled from the sun, and every day something bites him in the gut. He recalls the ivy that grew up the crumbling bricks of that house on Linden Boulevard. The calm regularity of peoples’ small talk and trust. He didn’t regard them as friends then, even though he saw them daily and knew their business from their mail and what they told him, but he misses them as friends now. He wonders how they are.
He catches Xiao Lin on the way out the door. She works part of his route these days.
Let me ask you a question, he says. Beatrice Templeton, on Larkin. Trish Templeton. Older lady. How she holding up?
Xiao Lin laughs shyly, turns, and walks away. She does not understand the question, or is in a rush, or is too polite or uneasy to tell him she does not know. Darrel cannot tell.
The late afternoon sun slashes through the fern frost and the musty muslin blinds and casts the room in a corona of orange-red the color of a white woman’s hair but Darrel barely notices and takes no warmth from it. It is Sunday. Darrel has not showered or shaved since Friday morning, and he will not again until Monday morning.
His hands hurt, but he holds them steady. His eyes fatigue, but he keeps them focused. Beneath the snowfall of poster board and onionskin paper and graphite, he works stoop-shoulder in the blending of fading daylight and the strong white backlight of the draftsman’s table. He sharpens an extra soft pencil, and completes the ears and nose and brow of the third swimmer from the left. He lifts the onionskin, and is dissatisfied by his inability to recreate the rollick of their smiles. The roll of the head, the necks cratered between shoulder blades, it leaves them looking sick and hollow without the pink of their faces. He abstracts a tree in the distance. He traces A Warm Hello From Nova Scotia! and looks back to the third swimmer from the left. Hollow will have to do. He has never worked in color.
By the time he completes the long-necked bird, adheres the paper to the poster board with a thin coat of the rubber cement and water he mixes himself, and suspends it from the ceiling by fish line, his hands are screaming and it is well past dark. He has not eaten since breakfast. He files the original under North America, takes a long breath, and closes the door on his way out.
In his bachelorhood Darrel had been quite a cook, and at the picnic where he proposed to Renita and she had wept when she tumbled into his arms, there was a whole chicken, and buttered potatoes tossed in rosemary, and the costliest bottle of champagne anybody could reasonably ask him to buy.
You know it can’t be champagne all the time, he said.
What about the chicken and potatoes? she said.
Every Saturday before Ashley was born, and every Saturday after she moved out, before Darrel put his feet up in his chair and turned the radio on so it filled the room, before Renita sat down on one of the three couches they owned over the years with a book in her lap and her legs tucked underneath her and then out in front of her when she got a little older and heavier, they had their fill of a whole chicken and buttered potatoes. He cooked and she did the dishes. That was what they had agreed to.
The door is unlocked. A newsman’s smoky tremolo comes through the radio. Darrel takes the cap off the mace he still carries with him and walks as stealthily as the weathered floorboards and his aching, unresponsive joints will let him. She stands at the sink, staring past the wishbones set to desiccate but never wished upon and the never-lit tea candles and a small and empty ceramic vase out the window. A can of watery soup is heating on the stove.
Ashley, he says.
Dad, she says. She turns and they look at each other.
Mrs. Williams let me in, she says.
Yeah, he says.
She had a key, she says. I made you a sandwich. And there’ll be soup in a minute.
Her hands are slipped into two small pockets on the front of her thin white blouse. Her hair is much longer than he remembers, and she does not have it straightened. She leans against the counter. He lowers the mace.
The place looks nice, she says. I, uh, I went into my room.
He looks at her.
To set my things down. It’s incredible, Dad, she says. It’s beautiful.
He looks at her.
You know, I have some friends that work at galleries, small art galleries, and, and I could talk to them, if—
No, he says. No.
Well, she says.
His knees are killing him. He sits.
I didn’t know you had such a thing for postcards, she says.
He stretches his legs out in front of him, and pulls his legs, one at a time, up into his abdomen, flexing his knees and ankles.
Your joints, she says. Can I do anything?
He doesn’t look at her.
No, he says.
Do you still have, she says, I sent you guys a bunch of postcards when I was traveling.
Three, he says. You sent three.
Yeah, she says and looks away.
He sets his feet on the floor. He sets the mace on the table.
I’m sorry, Dad, she says. I didn’t know. I didn’t.
He looks at her. Her jaw is shaking.
I lost my job, she says. The soup bubbles and froths on the stove.
Cut backs, she says, with the economy and everything.
What about Ben? he says after a minute.
Dan, she says. We broke up a long time ago. A younger woman.
I’m sorry to hear that, he says. I am.
Can I? she says. I took a bus. Can I stay here for a while? Until I—
That would be nice, he says.
Around the time that his joints started to bother Darrel enough to mention it Renita started to get her headaches. By the time Gene had moved him into the back because he could no longer finish his route for the pain, the doctors had told Darrel that the only thing that he could do for her was to stay with her and make her as comfortable as possible.
It had been a while since they had spoken to Ash. She traveled with Dan, a drummer for a band whose music Darrel could not listen to. Her postcards, from Korea and Hong Kong and Japan, did not contain much other than assurances that she was safe and healthy.
When Renita was lucid he read to her. The staff at the library on Greendale Street knew to be on the lookout for books about Asia.
I wish we could have traveled, she said.
When she was at her worst, to calm her, to bring her back, he talked to her about their life together. The time he lost control of the Dodge on the ice and sent the trashcans flying and her laughter as he drove away as fast as he could, terrified that the police would come. The cake she baked for Ashley’s second birthday, and how Ashley with her tiny fists destroyed it in a splash of flame and wax and frosting. The plans they made over the years, and whether or not they followed through with them.
Thank you was not the last thing Renita said to him, with her raving agony and her sweat-soaked fevers, but Thank you is what Darrel decided to remember.
Today there are hundreds but one stands out.
On the front: a man and a woman, dressed simply. An orangutan with big eyes and a long soft mouth is holding their hands. It is not tall enough to come up to their waists. All of them, all three, the man and the woman and the ape, are looking at something not shown. They are not smiling, but they each look as if a smile is not far away. On the back: Another stamp Darrel has not seen, a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and a flat nose wearing a gold or bronze headdress. Addressed to Evan Billings in 70814. Ev, You wouldn’t believe this place. It’s so beautiful. Imagine all your senses cut to the quick and overexposed. The food even, the people. Sad and horrifying sometimes but also wonderful. Write more later. Love, THJ. p.s. No actual chimps yet. Or elephants.
McCreedy catches Darrel slipping it into his pocket, and he shakes his head and his body crests with quiet laughter.
You’re getting old, he says.
You know how I know? he says.
Darrel rolls his fingers in small circles like his doctor says and closes his eyes tight to relieve the strain.
Oh, I know, alright. You know how I know?
Darrel looks up from the bin.
You know how I know? McCreedy says. Because I’m getting there, too, buddy.