She ought to have the letter by now.
She stared down at the stove, down at the unbearable number. Her left eye twitched. It was a new habit, one that had developed over several weeks of waiting under the spell of a promise - a force so mighty a simple mouse-like woman of twenty-nine could not sustain the weight all by herself without doubt and fear creeping in and causing her to shudder. Without leaving blue and brown shadows in the half-moons under her vigorous eyes.
She ought to have held it and read it and gotten back on track, on with the day. Instead she was suspended in uncertainty, dangling from its hook, circling the kitchen, drying an inconsequential dish. The whole matter was in the hands of the mailman.
The room was quiet. She had flipped off the radio ten long minutes earlier. She had wanted to create an appropriate amount of silence for the reading of the letter. In the living room she had arranged fluffy pillows on the sofa so that when she was seated she could comfortably extend her arm, allowing for a certain grace that comes with peace, a grace that exceeds even the blow of justice. She expected that.
The information would enter her home in a direct flood-lit path from envelope to ink into words and sentences which would then deliver their mysterious and wondrous message. She was afraid she might be overcome by the information, that she would require silence, and so there was silence.
But if the news was not good.
She paused, dragging a wet finger over the countertop. Then she would console herself with the orderliness of her possessions. The control she had over her belongings was comforting. The bookcase was arranged in descending height of hardbound then softbound fiction on the top shelf, moving aesthetically below to history. History was nearly fiction. She had only a few of these volumes and a few philosophy textbooks she had purchased second-hand at the university. She was a graduate. She had finished in the top tenth in her class of six thousand. That was an accomplishment she attributed to an outstanding ability to memorize. She could scribble out anything that could then be divided onto the flip sides of index cards, visualize the scribbles and commit it all into her short-term memory. She had no other real talent and she was not a personality, someone like the select few who shined at parties. They were only a select few and she reminded herself that she was by far in the majority of solid people who would never have to experience the sadness of seeing their limelight fade. She was asked to parties if only to fill an obligatory chair, to provide a backdrop on which to reflect the glow of others. Someone had to listen to their stories.
Her coffee table was dusted, spritzed this morning with Lemon Scented Pledge. That was one of the small things she could do to distract herself. And she had set out a handful of M&M's in a wooden palm leaf, just in case she might need them later.
Her eye twitched. She was disturbed by the silence.
What do you do with yourself when the very things you rely upon fall apart?
She flipped the radio back on and listened to every word of a commercial. She relied too heavily on the mailman, too heavily on the assurance that he would do his job.
She would give him fifteen more minutes. Surely that was enough time to plod up the street, to wheel the rickety mail cart around a corner. Perhaps at this moment he was heaving the enormous bag over his shoulder, hiking it further around his back as he opened a door. How much time did it take a person to unlock a row of boxes? It should only require the briefest of moments to remove the stack of letters, to pull off the rubberband. Perhaps he let it slip and fall and was delayed by stooping his awkward, inflexible back to pick it up.
She lowered her body onto the sofa. She wanted to review how she would open the letter. What was the proper procedure? Should she use her fingernail and rip the envelope, match the process with her expectations? Or should she preserve the moment taking care, take something fine, a sterling butter knife and slit it neatly for posterity. A letter opener.
She didn�t have one. A swift, terrifying thought passed through her mind that this was precisely the reason she had never received mail of this caliber. She had not and would not receive letters of excellence because she was not prepared. Excellence is erected stone by stone, each rock smoothed and measured and lifted and laid out for the gods until the final, culminating piece is lowered by an obelisk of patient, steady hands. It is never, ever, dropped willy-nilly from the sky by chance. By an inefficient mailman.
No. No, she said. She had not received quality mail because the mailman was not doing his job. He was dawdling, taking his time as he strolled up sidewalks looking at birds and saying hello to strangers. He hated his job. He had no respect for people.
She picked up her sweater, dropped her keychain into her pants pocket and ran downstairs.
From the landing she determined that no one was in the foyer. This was confirmed when the mailboxes were in sight. It was the usual blond-wood lacquered case, the usual glass face staring out among the others in the deserted foyer. They were all lined up like empty coffins waiting out the morning at the morgue. Was it possible he had come and gone? Her key was a thin silver colored trinket the size of a thumb nail. Her box read simply "M. Sanders. 409." She opened it. Even blind she could feel from the weight as it swung freely there was nothing. She flipped it closed, twisted the key, checked her watch. This was uncalled for. People have a right to their mail.
Trudging upstairs she tried to convince herself she didn�t have to think about the mailman. There were other things she could do to take her mind off letters. What are letters anyway but things that come and go? She opened the door to the flooding sounds from her radio. The reception faltered. She fiddled with the knob and found a loud raucous station. She would even go so far as to take off her shoes. She lay back among the pillows on the sofa, sighing, aimlessly picking at the M&M's. She devised a scheme to eat them in alphabetical order according to color. Blue, brown, green, orange, red, yellow.
Music filled the room splashing jabs of raucous sound. She threw back the last yellow candies, jumped up without thinking and went into the kitchen to have a look at the butter knife.
It was slightly wet and glistened in the sunlight dancing over the drying rack. The blade paled in comparison to the radiant length of the steak knife. She did not want to touch it.
This was all such classic behavior. This traipsing about her home, wasting time puzzling over matters that did not matter, squandering time when all she really had in the world was time. Quite simply, she did not have the strength of character to receive such a letter. She was a weak, weak person. She belonged under the indifferent authority of the mailman. She grabbed at the dishtowel. It was speckled with a variety of ducks and their scientific classifications, Mallards, Heron, etcetera. She dabbed it around the butter knife, patting at drops of water, then tucked it in her pocket.
Armed, she put on her shoes, then a jacket over her sweater and descended again down the four flights to the ground floor where she burst out into the city.
The coolness shocked and startled her. She made an instant declaration: I will walk until I find him.
She looked left and right. The mailman's route delivered sent him first to the building on the left. She went up to the door.
She began walking faster, only glancing inside other buildings, swinging her arms. She had to cross the street. People walked by her oblivious of the expedition, oblivious to the importance of delayed mail. She walked all the way up Houghton to James Street and then she stopped, confused. What is his area? Does he come from up there or does he continue from Taylor? Isn't that a different zip code?
She was standing still for a confused moment, weighing the vast possibilities when she saw a blue uniform across the block on Penn. It was definitely her mailman. He must be her mailman. She walked boldly out into the street. She had not looked for cars and now they were honking at her, drivers were shouting at her, but she didn�t care, she hardly heard a word.
He was wheeling around a large cart at a painfully slow clip so it was easy to catch up. But he cruised right on by an apartment building. He did not even bother to stop and distribute the mail. Then everything became numbingly, shockingly clear. He entered the Golden Oven restaurant.
He must think he is going to have lunch.
She was appalled. It would be hours now.
She followed him inside. She was in no mood to return home with this distasteful knowledge. He sat next to the window. She took a table towards the rear where she might surreptitiously watch his progress. A smiling waitress handed over a menu to her. Her name badge said, Sue.
She thought about finances. She had some money but not enough to waste on a restaurant.
Sue was speaking to the mailman. They appeared to know each other.
Sue took out a pad of paper. No, she would not write. They were talking. She moved her hand to write. Poised her pen. Stopped. She did not need to write. They were not even talking about food.
Has he changed his mind? His order was so trivial it did not require writing down.
Didn�t Sue know the danger she was unleashing by not writing anything down, the world of mistakes, of hesitation. of having to go back and retrace her thoughts without the words, without the facts on paper?
No one respects the importance of their job.
Sue rotated. She regarded M. Sanders watching blandly at her folded menu. A shrug.
"Ready?" Sue said.
She was certainly not wasting a moment with M. Sanders who returned her attention to the menu, obliquely considering sandwiches. It would be a grave mistake to order something which required preparation if the mailman was only having coffee.
"Yes," she said making the word seem like a lot of food. "Coffee. With low-fat milk."
Sue waited. She rolled her eyes over the width of the four-person table and up over her head at the ceiling.
A gaze towards God.
"Something to eat?"
All she could think about was that Sue had not yet returned to the kitchen to place the mailman's order. "All right. Scrambled eggs."
"No. I don't even want eggs."
Sue balanced her weight on one hip, "It comes with it."
"Wheat, white or rye?"
She went off to the kitchen.
M. Sanders stared at the mailman. She had never seen this particular mailman. He was in his early thirties, red-haired, a long, pocked face. He fiddled with the salt and pepper shakers and M. Sanders would have guessed by his incompetence that he was new at this job except for a few things that checked differently. His uniform was faded. The shoulders slouched with an inept fatigue, the kind of sleepiness that comes with too much sleep. He knew the waitress. He had walked in the restaurant at a premeditated pace. This collective data confirmed the worst, she had found her mailman.
Sue buoyantly reappeared slinging cups and a coffee pot. The lightness of her footsteps made a mockery of the work ethic.
She went straight to the table by the window and served the mailman. They smiled at each other. Then she returned to M. Sander�s table and set down a cup of black coffee.
"Creamer's by your hand," she said before M. Sanders could say a word.
She looked up incredulously, and Sue said, "Eggs take a minute."
Rapidly, she stirred the coffee hoping her action would inspire action in others. She sipped and glanced at the mailman's progress. He turned his head coincidentally catching her eyes which were fixed on his face. He blinked. Sipped. Swallowed. He put down his cup. Looked directly away and out the window at his parked mail cart and patted his selfish, smug mouth with a napkin.
She hardly noticed Sue return with the eggs. The coffee had gone to her head. She was more jittery than ever. She felt the knife aside her waist and she was almost astounded by her memory of the letter.
Then there were the eggs. Once again she could not accept the weakness in her personality that had allowed her to be persuaded by other insignificant people into doing something she did not wish to do.
She stood up. She left an entire ten dollar bill on the table and brushed past the mailman to wait outdoors. That was ample money to cover any confusion her leaving might create.
She was leaning against the outside wall of the restaurant waiting. It was important to do only what she set out to do. To live according to plan. To have a plan. Distraction was the culprit of a wide variety of mistakes. She recounted them all easily. She waited, thinking clearly about the man eating lunch.
Minutes went by. A corner of ducks hung over the flap of her coat pocket. She began to hum. Through the window she watched the mailman pay his bill. Certain knowledge was moments away. Yes, his hand pushed open the door. It was gloved. The delicate wheels of the mail cart made a tinkling sound on the sidewalk. He walked by her.
"Uh," she cried, but her voice was like the muffled cry of a cry in a dream where she was unable to actually cry out for help.
He did not stop.
He was moving out into the intersection and she was racing to keep up with him. �Excuse me!�
She ran to make the light, but he stopped to lift the wheels up over the curb. She bent down to help him.
"Hey!" He jerked away the cart and stood upright and looked wickedly at her.
This man is no civil servant.
Her face went flush and she was out of breath and at the same moment on the verge of trying again to cry for help.
"You got a problem?" he said.
Even his gestures were lazy, fraught with indifference.
"Yes! You're late!"
"I get a lunch hour," he said with factual superiority.
"That was forty-one minutes, what�s forty-one minutes?"
"Look lady," he started to say. Then, as if changing his mind, he waved her off with a dismissive wave and wheeled the cart up the block.
Her head went dizzy, blank with blackness and then the pinpricks of spiraling light filled her vision. Who was he? He didn�t know anything. Didn�t he know that she was someone about to receive a superior piece of mail?
She didn�t know where to turn, to go back or to move forward. It was impossible. She trailed up behind him and he was mumbling, "You do your job, let me worry about mine."
She reached his sleeve and tugged on that awful, faded jacket. His face, close up, was lined with strains of worry along his forehead. Bulging pimples dotted his jowl. He had scars everywhere. His green, average eyes jerked across her face.
Casually, easily, he turned away.
She took two more impossible steps to keep up with him, but he was gone.
Her legs went weak again. What strength would be required now to stand up straight, to walk forward towards him?
She cried out, �Sir!� this time loudly, freely with the full fortitude required to save him from his mediocrity, to help him know how important he was to the world, what power he held in his hands. She could do that for one person, surely, she could reach one person, save one person from this maddening inescapable chaos.
�Sir!� she cried out into the street.
He would not look back.
BIO: Carolyn Kegel�s short fiction has appeared in Night Train, Emrys Journal and Wilderness House Literary Review. She earned her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a BFA in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. She has recently completed her first novel. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Northern New Jersey.