The Poet’s Mail Carrier

by Karen Kates

There were four of us Yale seniors in the car returning from spring break in Florida, taking turns sleeping, then driving through the night back to college. Tim, Arty, and I had been freshmen roommates who’d stayed close. We’d met Nolan because he wanted a ride to Fort Lauderdale.

He was skinny and nerdy and at the wheel sometime after 3am on a nearly deserted stretch of highway in Virginia, when he removed his glasses for a moment to clean them on his shirt— nothing wrong with that, people told him over and over. An oil rig had been barreling our way in the other lane until its driver dozed off, allowing the tanker to jump the concrete divider, killing Arty, who’d been riding in the back seat behind Nolan.

“Suddenly, the headlights came flying toward me,” Nolan told the cops, shaking terribly in the hot, humid night.

Somehow we others were not badly injured; we bled from the splintered glass of both vehicles, but the first thing we did was to drag Arty away, before the truck exploded, although we knew we’d lost him. In the emergency room, while our gashes were easily sutured, we all kept crying. Even now, whenever I thought of Nolan, I considered how reasonable his judgment was, how commonplace it is to endure an instant of poor visibility: the mirror that fogs during shaving, the seconds before the brush of wipers clears a windshield of rain. It was senseless of him to leap to his death from the sixteenth floor of the Kline Biology Tower a few days after returning to campus. He left a letter about his guilt as the driver in the collision.

This happened in 1998, a year before the Columbine shootings; school grief counseling had not yet become embedded in our culture. On the night of the accident, Nolan stopped in the break-down lane to awaken Tim, whose turn it was to drive. “Oh man,” Tim confessed that he’d said. “Let me sleep a little more. I’ll owe you; I’ll do the morning rush hour.”

After the suicide, Tim, haggard with sorrow, stated, “Now I’m responsible for two deaths.”

I was the one who’d tacked the file card about needing a fourth driver for spring break onto a bulletin board crowded with messages. As I pinned my card next to a complaint—what asshole ripped off my purple crop-top from the Dwight laundry room?—a kid I didn’t know, Nolan, who’d been walking by, paused to say that he would like to do the trip.

Late in May, when the college was decorated for graduation, I was astonished to see that my index card was still on the bulletin board. So easily, I might have been delayed in posting the message because of a conference with a professor, or perhaps by stopping to speak to an acquaintance during the instant that Nolan went past; we would not have encountered each other.

Tim and I never stopped missing Arty, a dark-haired, earnest pre-med, who liked to study with his shoes off, in his black socks. His grandmother had given him a threadbare Oriental rug that he’d pace, holding a chemistry tome. Or Jeanine, his gorgeous girlfriend would test him, strands of her long, coppery hair catching like a book mark in the pages. At his funeral, I wept as the rabbi opened the heavy Torah, which reminded me of Arty and his books.

After college, Tim took a job as an investment strategist in the Bay Area and avoided contact with me. I saw him only when he traveled to Brooklyn to speak at Arty’s memorial service during the several years that the family held the gatherings. Each time he’d told a different anecdote about our friend.

At first, Arty had never danced at Yale. During parties, he stood in a corner watching contentedly, nursing a beer, until the weekend that he saw Jeanine hoofing it up in a campus musical. He learned The Frug so he could be in her next show, Sweet Charity.

Jeanine once told us that Arty was the high-scorer of the Bushwick high school bowling league. He denied it. Tim and I were able to rent an alley after midnight, and with the owner’s collusion we locked Arty in. Finally, he reluctantly lifted a ball. For an hour, he knocked down every pin in sight.

Shortly before he was to take a train into Manhattan for a medical school interview, he noticed a tear in his suit. He tried on eleven different suits that a gang of us brought over to him, and one looked presentable. But he phoned from Grand Central Station. He was wearing mismatched shoes.

Each week he went into North Haven to mentor in a Big Brother program. Tim didn’t mention the teenager who sent a thank-you package to Arty, a beautifully wrapped department store gift box. Inside were two fine grams of hashish.

I never spoke at the memorials, although I believed that Arty’s death left a jagged hole in the world. He was so mild-mannered. I imagined his kids having a happy childhood, setting a good example for others by their gentleness, passing on his grace to their own children. Arty had wanted to be an oncologist; there were lives that he might have saved, or people would not forget how he comforted them.

That’s who we lost.

 

As we approached our fortieth birthdays, many college classmates became sentimental, writing to the class notes column of the alumni magazine. A submission from Tim read: I am a postal carrier in Carmel, New York. It’s a calm, good life.

I lived in Bedford, in Westchester County, less than an hour away; I had no idea how long he’d been close by. When I started to leave a phone message, suggesting dinner at my house with the family or perhaps getting together by ourselves, he picked up.

He asked, “How about lunch in the city next week? Maybe June 14th, because Flag Day’s a postal holiday.”

“Is it?”

“Of course not, you moron. I need to be in Manhattan. Postal workers occasionally have to meet with their brokers or lawyers, just like anyone else.”

I told him that I was surprised that he hadn’t contacted me.

“Yeah, let’s take it a bit at a time, David.”

I could see him through the window of the restaurant across the street from where I worked.  He was wearing a tie and jacket. And although his hair had gone gray, he didn’t look too different from a decade ago, when we were together at Arty’s final memorial tribute.

Tim had been considered handsome in college, but more significantly, even now when sitting alone, his expression was still open and friendly, indicative of the nice person he was. That receptive demeanor also seemed emblematic. Of we three close friends, Arty, him, and me—he was the most brilliant, incessantly open to the acquisition of knowledge.

As we shook hands, it seemed to me that he did so reluctantly. A waitress set down a Caesar salad that he must have ordered, and after I sat across from him I asked for the salad too.

“You didn’t tell me that you moved to my area,” I said. “Or, that you were a mail man.”

“A postal carrier. I bet you expected me to show up in uniform. I get shorts for the summer.”

He gestured at my building. “Your office is in that place? How high up?”

I replied that I was on the thirtieth floor.

“You’re a man of power.” His tone was pleasant.

“I get a good view of the city.”

“A god-like view. Does it make you feel more perceptive?” he said, “Sorry. How’s your family?”

“Good. Busy.”

In the old days he would have sensed that I was bluffing. My marriage wasn’t shot to hell; I wouldn’t say that. But how and when things changed baffled me. I had loved to kayak with my wife on the Hudson, in a park with a strip of sandy beach, close to where we live. When our daughters were small we would bring along a teenage babysitter to take them to the playground or for a hike while we went kayaking.

Once, years ago, when one of us accidentally dropped a paddle, we felt a guilty delight about being stranded out in the water, unable to return to our responsibilities. The lifeguard had not yet perceived that there was a problem. My wife massaged sunscreen down my chest and then worked her fingers under my bathing suit, holding my erection in her hand. Hmm, I think I caught a thrashing fish, she said, while we saw our kids, back from wherever they’d been, hopping up and down on the shore, panicky because we were still out on the boat.

A man who was standing by a grill waved to us with a spatula, and then pointed to the children. “Does he want to fry them?” my wife had asked, although we understood that he was being kind, offering to distract our girls with food. “Damn,” she continued. “The guy in the motorboat is coming. Can’t we tell him to go away?”

We never lost a paddle again until just a few weeks ago, when being stuck out in the river seemed interminable—we had that little to say to each other.

Tim asked, “At your workplace up there in the clouds, how well do you get to know everyone? Do you stop and talk to the secretarial pool?”

“I guess with your job, you have to say, Hello, how are you? repeatedly. On hot days, the ladies probably offer you lemonade.”

I regretted that I sounded condescending; I wanted him to think that I’d been joking. Reaching across the table, I playfully punched him in the shoulder.

He said, “Watch it! You can’t assault a federal employee. But you’re not wrong. The small talk is fine.”

Tim removed a photograph from his shirt pocket and handed it to me.

“This came in an envelope without a return address when I was still out West. Nolan’s mother sent me a digitally aged snapshot of him.”

“Shit,” I said. “Why do you keep it?”

I looked at the photo and indeed recognized Nolan, on the cusp of middle age.

“The poor guy,” I said. “That poor, poor fellow.”

He took the picture back, and then he tore it into four pieces, which he balled inside a napkin.

I asked him if, after all this time, the accident had influenced his—at first I wasn’t sure how to phrase it—his change in lifestyle. Neither of us touched our food, and the waitress had the instinct not to hover.

He told me, “I put in my time working hellish hours as a way to forget what happened. Now you think I’m throwing away my potential, right? In the past year especially, I would go so far as to say that I’m happy.”

“I miss you.”

I considered that females were far better at this sort of conversation.

Tim lowered his voice. “I like you too, you fucker. But there are seven billion people on the planet, and you’re the one I was with that night.”

“The crash was seventeen years ago,” I said. “Therapy helped me.”

“You weren’t responsible for two deaths.”

“I didn’t take the wheel, either.”

“Yes, you could have, but you were slumbering like a baby. I should have woken you up.”

What he did not say was that that neither of us wore glasses that needed to be removed and cleaned in the crucial split second when the tanker swerved toward us. He or I might have floored the accelerator, bypassed the truck, and then careened across the almost deserted highway to the breakdown lane. We would have watched from a distance the explosion, with its lava of steel and glass, probably powerful enough to make our car shake.

In Florida we’d booked a cheap room with two real beds, a rollaway and a cot. Before spring break Arty, Tim, and I decided that Nolan, the skinny nerd with glasses, would get laid the most. But each day, although he used the pool, he spent most of his time with a book, sprawled out in the sand on his blanket. He turned tan, then nut-brown. Nolan was the only one of us not to throw a pile of dirty towels on the bathroom floor. Nor, did he complain if he awoke from the noise of a girl in my bed or Tim’s. In the morning he pretended obliviousness. Hey, I always sleep like a log after my twenty laps in the water. I’m having a great time.

He was a nice kid.

Arty spent so much time on the phone talking to Jeanine that he ran up a bill greater than his share of the room.

There were hundreds of us in Fort Lauderdale, as if we were moths attracted to that hot bulb of a sun that shone the entire week we were down there. Nights were starry and bright in Lauderdale. Mass volleyball games continued until 10pm. Once all four of us roommates decided to go out to dinner with a big group of girls we’d met at the beach.

When we sat down at the restaurant, however, we were sure that they weren’t the same girls, in fact there were too many of them. We were seated on long benches, and any time several people simultaneously leaned against the table it rocked like a boat. We came close to tipping it over. All that night I imagined the cacophony of broken china and the twenty or so of us coming up with piles of dollars and coins to pay for the damage.

One morning Tim returned to our room wearing a skirt and pink shirt that said Luv is Lauderdale in silver sequins. He couldn’t find his clothes when he awoke. Maybe there had been another couple in one of the other beds and some guy took his clothes by mistake, or maybe there was a jealous boyfriend. “Whatever you say, Miss,” I told him. Arty asked, “Madame, what is your rate? We might be interested.”

An hour or so later Tim located me on the beach, and pointed to where Arty sat on a towel absorbed in conversation with a blonde in a purple string bikini. As we watched, she nestled closer to Arty, who wore khaki shorts and sneakers with his usual black socks. Then they both stood up, shook hands, and wished each other good luck with medical school.

The plentiful sun served as a balm on our concerns. There was sex, but also conversations about what worried us, wherever we were from: obtaining jobs, parents losing jobs or divorcing, unreliable boyfriends, girlfriends engaged to someone else out of the blue.

On the last night, some of the girls tried to count the stars, which seemed more numerous than ever—a black velvet sky crammed with silver jewels. Waves slapped the shore rhythmically, and during the final game of volleyball, Arty joined the back row and spiked the ball just out of everyone’s reach, even the tallest of us, or the most agile.

 

After our meeting in the city I didn’t expect Tim to contact me. But I couldn’t see the point of being passive; I wanted to know my old, good friend again.

“It’s not right,” I told my wife the next morning, while she was getting breakfast together for the family. “He’s dug himself into a hole of anger and grief.”

I had worked late, returning home after everyone was asleep. It was my first chance to talk.

“He also insisted that he’s happier recently. There’s nothing wrong with being a mail carrier, David.”

My wife Meghan was red-haired, and still had her freckles. I used to count them when we were naked in be. Never once did I come up with the same number. I’ve wondered why we rarely lingered after sex now. Were we really too busy? If I took notice that she’d aged, I thought that the faint crinkles by her eyes were pretty, emphasizing their sea-green color.

But these days, her lips were often set in a determination to complete the to-do list that she clicked on to the refrigerator with magnets, a reasonable way to keep all of us organized. One daughter performed in several theater groups, the other played on a traveling soccer team that won so frequently that it traveled farther and farther away for tournaments. Meghan went along on weekends, while I tended to stay home and catch up with the yard work.

Our life used to feel more spontaneous. The babies cried unpredictably, or when they were a little older they constantly tripped over objects that were invisible to us. Even as we soothed, we would look at each other and laugh.

When she turned her back to scramble eggs, I removed the day’s agenda from the refrigerator, flipped the sheet of paper over to its blank side and clamped the magnet back on. I wrote, On Saturday night let’s drive to a movie many towns away and kiss until the teenage girls sitting next to us giggle.

Our own girls sauntered into the kitchen, Lily the athlete, Chloe the actress, ten and twelve. They were both fragrant from shampoo. That year, first thing in the morning, they washed their hair, then went to school with it wet, even in winter. I’d imagined icicles forming in their red pony tails as they walked outside. If they shook their heads there might be a sound like wind chimes.

I loved my daughters ridiculously. Once when I drove on the interstate at night, heading up to Maine for our vacations, I was flagged down by cops because I was cautious, going a bit too slowly. The flashlight waved in my face, at the children asleep in the back.

“Where’s the chore list?” Chloe asked.

“Dad took it to add some suggestions of his own,” my wife answered.

The sheet of paper full of fragmented declarations—Need soccer cleats, Rehearsal ends 4—had vanished from the refrigerator. As usual the girls didn’t finish their breakfast, although they kissed us before leaving the house, enthusiastic about their upcoming day.

I told Meghan, “Maybe they should take the summer off. No soccer team, or performances. They could ride their bikes around town, take things a bit easier.”

“Possibly, your friend Tim wants a more relaxed way of life too, after all this time.”

“I may go up there to Carmel and find him.”

“He doesn’t want to see you.”

Meghan smiled at me though, and unfolded the to-do list from her pocket.

“We’ll have our movie date. How about a double bill at the Imax this weekend?”

 

I waited a month, and then, despite Meghan’s protests, I drove over to Carmel, a bucolic town, small enough that one might encounter a postal carrier on his route. As in my own community, I observed a mailman who was allowed to drive his compact white truck for about three blocks, park, and then deliver the mail without using an old-fashioned sack.

From my car, I searched the village long enough to decide that my visit was a mistake. Then I saw Tim in his neatly creased blue postal shirt and shorts. I pulled over to the curb and put on sun glasses, feeling ludicrous.

Tim took off in his truck. Allowing a few other cars to cut in front of me, I trailed him. He turned onto a road in the woods where houses were set far back or not visible from the street. Again, I followed. I idled by a long driveway that led to a home that was mostly obscured by trees, and then I made a pretense of talking on my cell phone, which was unnecessary, because Tim was concentrating on filling a row of  mailboxes and lifting the colored, metal flags that indicated he’d come. I slumped in my seat, but he barely glanced in my direction.

He had raised all the flags except one. He started up his truck again and then angled on to a very narrow lane behind the empty mailbox.

For a good half hour I sat in my car ashamed, before I locked it and walked up the road, which was redolent with fallen pine needles. I felt scared that a dog would come bounding at me. I didn’t have a can of mace like a mailman or, I thought, perhaps that was only a stereotype.

Eventually, I saw a weathered, brick ranch house. A beautiful woman, probably in her thirties, with long, shining black hair, picked tomatoes from a vine. She was barefoot, bare-legged, wearing Tim’s uniform shirt, and, I suspected, nothing else. As she went back into the house and shut the door, I hoped she’d been too preoccupied to notice me.

Then Tim walked outside, naked.

“I have nothing to hide, Peeping Tom. Sam the Stalker.”

He didn’t seem mad, only exasperated in a good-natured way.

Tim said, “I can guess what you’re thinking. The mail carrier has his fling while the husband’s at work and the kids are at camp. As it happens, she’s not married.

“I’m thinking that I feel humiliated.”

The woman appeared, wearing a yellow tank-top and cut-off jeans. She was smiling.

“Get some clothes on, Tim. David, have lunch with us.”

Tim told me that her name was Jill. She was a poet on sabbatical from the college where she was a professor. “And if you’re indignant because a mail carrier whom you support with your taxes seems to have neglected his job, I was off today. I covered an emergency absence morning shift while you, Sherlock, hovered in your car with those goddamn ugly sunglasses.”

We ate in the kitchen, a ceiling fan slowly turning, flies bumping against the screens of the open windows. Lunch was sandwiches: thick, grainy bread, Havarti cheese, and the sun-warmed tomatoes she’d brought from outside. I couldn’t remember when I last tasted anything so good, which I wanted to say so to Jill, but she was a writer and I knew that the sentence was hackneyed.

“You must enjoy the solitude out here for your work,” I said, conscious that I was using another well-worn statement.

“I like teaching, but a break from the lunacy of faculty meetings is fantastic.”

“She’s already famous, with two published collections,” Tim said. “Google her.”

“Oh, please,” she protested.

He handed me his iPhone, on which he’d pulled up her website. She was pretty in the photograph, but not as knock-down gorgeous as she actually was, sitting there at the kitchen table.

Thinking about how Google and ogle sounded somewhat alike, I looked away from the picture to where there was a substantial list of reading engagements for her second book. She was also giving a lecture on the poet Sharon Olds.

I said, “We read Olds in college. I remember a poem about girls and math and a pool.”

“‘The Only Girl at the Boy’s Party.’ Good for you.”

Then I told Tim, “This whole thing today—I was way out of line. I’m sorry.”

Jill covered my wrist with her hand. “You’ll see more of us,” she said. “I love him, and I wield a bit of influence.”

“She’s marrying me for financial security, my government pension, adjusted for inflation.”

“I don’t need it.”

She explained that she was foolish enough to agree to sell out to an advertising agency. One of her poems was now set to music as a cat food commercial, for which she’d received far more than her yearly salary.

I scraped my chair closer and hugged her. “For the marriage,” I said, “not the cat food coup.” On another visit, if we were alone, I would tell her how happy I was that Tim had finally allowed someone to love him. That there was a time when most people who knew him would have chosen the adjective lovable—as well as brilliant—to describe him.

He’d entered college as a ranked tennis player, but had no further interest in competitive matches. On the court, in games with friends who tried to beat him, he’d lob those Wilsons over the net as casually as if he were returning a neighbor’s stray ball back across the fence.

He had a blond Dennis the Menace cowlick that he could never keep down.

Wall Street recruiters came to campus in search of him, walking past everyone else as if we were ghosts. Tim Pied Pipered the men back to us and then introduced everyone, articulating our individual strengths, so that we all got interviews.

A famous female mathematician visited the campus and wanted to meet with him. They spent an hour in a classroom filling a black board with numbers and cosigns. When the two of them emerged, covered with chalk dust, the woman seemed incredulous, probably about the magnitude of Tim’s intellect, I’d thought. Later, he told me that she couldn’t believe that there wasn’t another way for the Yankees to acquire Roger Clemens without trading Dave Wells.

If the course of his life had brought him to this peaceful house and a smart, lovely woman, I hoped that he would come to terms with the fact that the present’s good fortune—like unbearable past tragedy—was sometimes a matter of chance.

Jill asked, “You have two children, David? A boy and a girl?”

“Two girls.”

She raised her eyebrows at Tim.

“The younger one is so immersed in soccer that she kicks off her covers at night and goes on kicking, with perfect form. Our older daughter is all about theater, which means that my wife and I feed her lines from her scripts, help paint the sets, make sure the cast has bouquets of flowers at curtain call.”

“They keep you occupied,” Tim said, although I expected such a response from Jill.

“It’s a daily marathon. We’re winded but exhilarated.”

The ever-shifting tides of children’s demands. Kids don’t really care about your past life, which could be an outdated suit, yellowing in a dry-cleaner’s bag in your closet. Jill the poet might say that your old, flawed self was hanging in effigy.

Tim asked Jill whether he could show me her study, and when she agreed, he said, “She likes you. That space is off-limits to most guests. She writes a few lines on scraps of paper, or whatever is around when she’s inspired, then thumbtacks the words on her walls.”

“I met him because I was scribbling on a box of Milk Duds at the movies. He asked if I was a critic, the nut.”

When we stood, he wrapped his arm around Jill’s waist. She leaned into him.

It occurred to me that if I hadn’t followed Tim, most likely they would still be undressed. I couldn’t understand why their passion for each other should startle me. There was a time not so long ago when I was blessed with my wife’s adoration. I used to think, incredulous about my good luck, that with her and the girls, I was awash with love.

The windows were open in Jill’s study, and there was a breeze outside now. Hundreds of tiny pieces of paper swayed like white flowers in a field. If not anchored at the center by tacks, the papers would drift through the room like dogwood petals, snowflakes, or confetti. I imagined myself cupping my hands to catch words that I might use to speak to Meghan with a tenderness that had once been instinctive.

Tim told me, “I’m glad you were so persistent, Sam Spade. It’s nice to have you here.”

He shook his head. “Arty,” he said, “Oh, Arty. When you walked into that restaurant in Manhattan, I almost expected to see him behind you, looking like he did, a twenty-year-old kid.”

“I see him all the time, the white-coated doctor, stepping out for a sandwich. He’s the one who patiently keeps his place at the end of the queue, even when other people cut in. His beard is grizzled.”

“His socks are black,” Tim said, and laughed.

For a few hours after leaving Fort Lauderdale, the four of us were awake and wired. Early on Tim had asked, “Hey Nolan, we can’t carry a tune. What about you?”

“Not even close,” he’d answered.

I don’t know who started it, but we all became Ringo Starr, shouting out the song about singing out of tune and needing friends for good luck. There were four of us, so we did bad impersonations of other immortal rock quartet: Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains. We sang “Oh, What a Night,” hamming Frankie Vali’s falsetto part. We free-associated with Led Zeppelin’s black nights and not being complete without friends.

Somewhere, there was an intersection with a stop light, and a cranky-faced old woman in the car next to us leaned out her window and spoke to Arty, who was driving. When we asked him if she’d told us to be less noisy, Arty insisted that she’d said, “Boys, the final word of the song is ooh not oh.” As if Arty had been telling us the truth about her we yelled, “Thank you Ma’am!” giving a thumbs up before we shot away.

Night fell while I drove, and the others slept. I traversed a rural stretch of interstate that looked as dark as a lake. Our car could have been a boat skimming the water, our headlights, beacons. Eventually, I decided to pull in at a rest stop. Trucks, the lights off, the drivers probably asleep, were scattered around the parking lot like boulders. I awoke Nolan, Arty, and Tim.

Afterwards, Nolan took the wheel and Tim said, “Come on, Fab Four. One more number.” He began “Yesterday,” using an exaggerated British accent, and we joined in discordantly about our troubles being in the past, although we weren’t troubled at all. We were anticipating our futures, as the smooth highway spooled out before us.

 

Karen Kates’s fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers

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