Angrily and with little consideration for the menagerie of miniature animals, he threw the mail onto the small wicker table in his living room. The carefully arranged current issues of various catalogs, an ornate potpourri dish, the tiny glass penguins and ceramic geese, who had for a long time enjoyed their unique geography-defying union in admirable harmony, crashed to the carpet making a disheveled but arguably beautiful mess. The geese had settled in varieties of positions that would be unnatural if not unsettling to witness in full-scale. The penguins, as a result of their shape or perhaps their stubborn will, had engaged almost unanimously in sliding through the strewn potpourri and catalogs like they had on so many snow-covered glaciers.
Thaddeus stepped heavily and with much frustration around the living room. His hairy, swollen arms hung still at his sides giving him the appearance of a gorilla, territorially tromping through his man-made zoo habitat. The labored and quite audible breath that heaved his chest up and down only furthered the image. The potpourri ground into the carpet and more than a few geese became amputees beneath the tyranny of his shoes. Even the penguins, a normally resilient bunch, suffered some losses. The only things that escaped were the glossy pages of the Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn catalogues that, as anyone who has slipped and fell on one could tell you, are a force to be reckoned with. Shaking the floor with the heft of his large frame, he continued his pout of a walk into the kitchen where he stopped abruptly in front of the sink, turned sharply on his heel, and furiously spat into it.
He stood in front of the sink fixed in the stiff forward lean of a man in the throes of spitting, looking to muster one last extra bit of propellant. His eyes were fixed on the sink in a way that, for the first time since he walked in the door, was not in the least angry. His face was not soft but it lacked the signature tautness of rage. His eyelids, which had retreated deep into some hidden recess of his face, had calmed down and showed themselves again, subduing the crazed look of indignation in his eyes. The tightness in his mouth softened, his lips uncurled, and his mouth was almost agape. With the quickness of a pull on a bed sheet, the wrinkles smoothed out in his forehead. His gaze had such a deep, dewy quality to it that could only be the sign of utmost concern or imminent tears. In the sink, on the opposite end of his almost boyish stare, was the bit of snot and saliva he had spat out, sticking to the edge of the drain. As he watched its descent, at a pace so slow as to border imperceptible, he thought that it might bear as much a resemblance to himself as any mirror or picture had in his life.
Henry Chirk was about to lose his mind if he didn't get the damned poppy seed out from between his teeth. It had become stuck between his top right canine and the neighboring incisor while eating an otherwise enjoyable muffin. He was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook. He had his finger in his mouth, working his fingernail between his teeth, while he tongued at the lump the seed made as it worked its way further between his teeth and up, burrowing into the gum.
He had his eyes shut and his head back in absolute concentration when his wife walked into the kitchen and over to the nook. He didn't notice her cautiously lay the mail on the table in front of him and sit down. A small wispy woman all her life, now frail from her many years, she hardly made a sound when she sat. Her voice was negligibly louder.
"The mail's here, Henry."
The tiny sound had no impact on him. Grace tried again, at no greater volume, but with a determined insistence.
He opened his eyes, removed his finger from his mouth, smiled and said good morning as a thin trickle of spit streaked down his chin.
"I've got a poppy seed stuck in my teeth."
"You've got some spit on your face."
"No, I've got a—oh, do I?" He wiped the drool from his chin and picked up an envelope from an insurance company in New York. "Would you like some coffee? There's some in the pot."
"That would be lovely. Thank you." She got up and walked toward the coffeemaker. "Would you like a cup?"
The envelope from the insurance company contained an offer for life insurance that was, at best, mediocre, but the company's logo, a large majestic deer with its front legs on a rock and its copiously antlered head looking off into a setting sun, Henry found inspiring. He also thought the pictures of active seniors in the accompanying brochure were pretty swell though a bit pandering. Quite a bit of time was spent perusing the material before Henry discarded it and opened the next piece of mail.
It was a plain, white envelope with a stamp featuring a handsome young robin, splendid shades of orange and brown, his chest swelling with pride and libido. Running into this avian portrait was a postmark from Davenport, Iowa. The envelope was addressed to Henry and Grace's, but the name was neither of theirs. There was no return address. Instead, on the upper left corner of the envelope, it only said: "T.S. Balk."
Paint chips drifted through the air. Aside from the really chunky pieces that broke the calm, it looked like snow. The powder built up on the lawn and the bushes. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Thaddeus' house.
He inherited the home three years ago when his aunt died and he moved there. His aunt's house was old like the trees around it. The paint job was fading but by no means an eyesore. Regardless, when he moved in, Thaddeus decided he would repaint the house. His aunt adopted him when his parents left the country and abandoned him. When she died he lost the last member of his family with whom he shared a close relationship. Thaddeus thought of repainting the house as paying respects to the memory of his aunt. He planned to start revamping that memorial in the spring and, working by himself, finish by the end of summer.
True to his word, he started the prep work in spring, sanding and scraping the old paint, caulking cracks in the wood, and priming the surfaces to be painted. The more he removed flaking and cracked paint it seemed the more there was to scrape. The caulking was endless. Thaddeus gouged the wood beneath the paint with embarrassing regularity, sometimes inadvertently, other times out of frustration. In every place he gouged the wood he had to caulk it and slap on some primer. It took him all summer and there was still more to do when he came back to it after winter.
After three years it was therapy. All of Thaddeus but his back was covered in a powder-fine, beige snow. It stuck to the doughy, freshly shaved skin on his neck. All of his fingernails had it caked up underneath them, jammed into the quick, gaining territory. It filled his nose. It had no effect on him at all. He scraped the house at a steady pace and with an unusual air of placidity. Paint chips and wood shavings came off the house in multitudes. Two years ago, Thaddeus had stopped worrying about the perpetuating nature of the prep work. He had an epiphany that summer. It had to do with purpose and divine intelligence and…well, heatstroke. To put it briefly, after his great realization he dedicated himself to prep the house thoroughly, completely, and responsibly, no matter how long it took, because ultimately this would produce a better end result and potentially alleviate some of the workload during painting. He also held the belief that, perhaps, through this method he could make himself a more complete, rounded person. Maybe that's what everyone's personality needs, he thought, a little scraping and caulking to fix all the flaws.
While Thaddeus was up on the ladder working thoroughly, completely, and responsibly, he didn't notice the mailman walking across his lawn, fighting through the mid July beige-out.
"Excuse me!" he shouted over Thaddeus's fervent exorcism of wood and paint. He put a hand up in the air, using a large manila envelope to shield his eyes from the blizzard. "Excuse me!"
Thaddeus stopped scraping, looked forward at the house in front of him, then resumed as smoothly as if the interruption was a rest written in a piece of music in front of him.
"Oh!" Thaddeus' face brightened and he descended the ladder in a hurried but overweight kind of movement. When he reached the ground he was half out of breath and gasped more than said, "Hello."
"Here you go," the mailman handed him the mail and started to walk away. Thaddeus rapidly shuffled through the envelopes and catalogs, stopped, then bolted in the direction of the mailman.
"You made a mistake."
The mailman stopped and turned to face Thaddeus.
"You made a mistake, I should have received something."
"You did receive something."
"No," Thaddeus said and looked down at the mail he was holding. "No, not these. I should have received something else. A long time ago, actually. Y'see—"
"Listen, that's not really my problem," the mailman said, turning around.
"Hey!" Thaddeus yelled and grabbed the mailman by the shoulder, spinning him around. "Don't interrupt me! I have been expecting a letter for almost a year and I demand—" and with this word he thrust his hand forward for emphasis, only it was the sharp metal scraper hand, and he cut the postman's hand. The postman, shocked from the unexpected assault, recoiled and tried to run but stumbled on his feet and fell. The contents of his bag dumped out onto the lawn as he keeled backward, sprawling out on his back and elbows. Thaddeus looked at him in shock. As they met eyes the postman burst into tears.
"Oh," Thaddeus held his fleshy chin in his big palm and wrinkled his forehead. He spoke softly, hesitantly, almost stuttering. "Oh, my god. I—I'm so sorry."
The mailman couldn't speak through his hysterical, body-lurching sobs. He sat on the grass with his knees drawn into his chest, his hands covering his face. He cried not just with his body but with his entire soul. At this point Thaddeus was embarrassed, first at himself but, as the situation unfolded, increasingly more for the mailman. He was certain the breakdown could not be the result of the cut on his hand alone. He stood for almost a minute in complete silence, staring at the crying mailman.
"I don't mean to pry but is there something else on your mind?"
From the mailman came a very spitty and snot filled "what do you think?" before melting back into gasping, throaty fits.
"You need to grow up. I'm trying to be nice to you and you're lashing out at me."
"Lashing out?" The postal carrier took his hands from his face, regained a shred of composure and looked up at Thaddeus, pointing at his bloody hand. "You cut me with a knife!"
The mailman got up, leaving his mailbag and the scattered mail on the grass, his crying stopped. He walked toward Thaddeus who inched back slightly, almost leaning away.
"Hey, now...listen. I just want my letter."
"Y'know what?" The mailman smiled slightly, walking closer to Thaddeus until their chests almost touched. "I think your friend blew you off and never sent you a letter, y'fucking loser."
Before the postal carrier had a chance to react he was on the ground looking up at Thaddeus, who stood above him with arms slack, the scraper in his right hand. He continued to look down at the mailman, still and white like the envelopes that lay around him.
At the Chirks' house a pile had begun to grow, a pile of envelopes, every one addressed to the same person, Daniel Balk. The pile bothered Henry. He didn't understand why it was his responsibility to hold someone else's mail this long. The pile had been growing for almost a year now. It worried Grace. She felt sad for this T.S. Balk and his family whose letters wrongly sat in an empty Kleenex box on the table in her breakfast nook.
One day the police come to the Chirks' and informed them that the pile had been involved in a crime. The man that sent them, the officers tell them over coffee and cream-filled sandwich cookies, assaulted a mailman. They all agreed that it was an awful thing to do and crazy.
One of Thaddeus' neighbors had called the police. She told them he had hit the mailman across the head with something. No, she didn't know what it was, maybe a big wrench. Yes, the mailman seemed unconscious. She didn't know if he was bleeding, she saw it happen from her living room window. She heard someone yelling and looked out the window. Then she saw Thaddeus knock out the mailman and stand there, perfectly still, watching him lie on the ground. She got off the phone and stayed at the window until two police cars arrived.
When the police approached him, Thaddeus was on his hands and knees, sorting through the mail with the drive of a possessed man, flipping over his shoulder the mail he'd gone through and clawing with both hands at the ground for more. He didn't follow their directions. He kept tearing through the letters, grabbing envelopes and bits of grass and dirt. One of the officers grabbed at his arm and Thaddeus jerked it out of his grasp. The other officer lunged at him but slipped on a catalog and fell towards Thaddeus, who pushed the officer to the ground and scrambled for the mail. The officer took this as either a sign of aggression or a free ticket for close combat and kicked Thaddeus in the ribs. As Thaddeus writhed on the ground, officer Surefoot walked over to him, kneeled on the ground, and punched him in the nose.
Daniel Balk finally received his cousin's letters when he went to visit Thaddeus in jail. The police had been holding them as evidence for the couple of days after the Pennsylvania police sent them to Iowa. When they were questioning Thaddeus, he mentioned he was expecting a letter from Daniel. The police got a hold of him, by way of his mother, and asked if he had maintained any correspondence with Thaddeus. He told them he hadn't but that he had given his address to his cousin in Pennsylvania at their aunt's funeral. A year later Daniel moved out of that house and the Chirks moved in.
A policeman escorted him down a white, sterile hallway with buzzing, dull yellow lighting that made everything look pale and jaundiced. Tucked under his arm was the rubber-banded bundle of Thaddeus' letters. There were easily twenty-five of them, but he hadn't opened one since receiving them, partially because he couldn't choose which to start with and also because the jailhouse, a marvel of small town ingenuity, served as the courthouse and police station which meant that Thaddeus and his letters were under the same roof. The minute and a half walk from the clerk's desk to the room where they held his cousin provided less than adequate time to go through the letters.
They walked down the hallway until it doglegged left into a door next to one of those windows with the steel cage built into the glass. Behind the metal checker pattern, Thaddeus's fat face scrunched up in a smile, his eyes barely visible from behind his cheeks. He waved emphatically. The escort unlocked the door and let Daniel into the room, told him where he could be found if he needed anything and quietly slid the door closed.
He pulled a bluish gray chair from the table and sat across from his cousin.
"It's great to see you." He spoke hurriedly, almost childishly. In his chair he fidgeted and never stopped smiling. The police had granted him the underrated privilege of removing his cuffs.
"Thaddeus, it's good to see you, too—you're in a lot of trouble." He paused and stared at him. Thaddeus's eyes dripped with sincerity but not in a sad way. He seemed complacent. "Do you understand that?"
"I know, Dan." His smile weakened, then he looked down.
"They said you hit a mailman with a screwdriver."
"It was a paint scraper." He said this slowly, directed more at his lap than at Daniel.
"Did you get my letters?" He looked up, smiling again.
"Well, yes...but I haven't read any of them yet."
"Why not?" he said, surprised and a little angry.
"I just got them." Daniel grabbed the bundle from under his arm, held them up for a second and set them on the table. Thaddeus' fidgeting, which had subsided, started to boil over. He slapped his hands lightly and rhythmically on the table.
"C'mon, open one of them."
Daniel tore the end of one of the envelopes. The yellowed newspaper clipping that slipped out of it was from the day Thaddeus graduated high school in the late eighties. In the picture next to the article titled "Local Boy a Success" was a teenaged Thaddeus, slightly less fat with acne raging on his smiling face. He was decked out in cap and gown, adorned with ribbons and strings. The article went on to say that he had been named valedictorian of his school and awarded a full ride scholarship to a prestigious university. Later he graduated from there, valedictorian again.
"I guess Aunt Jean had been holding onto them." Thaddeus was still, calmer. "I found a big box full of them after I moved into her house."
Daniel opened a few more of the envelopes. In them were more newspaper clippings, most of them from chess tournaments won, one of them was the college version of his high school success story, a couple had to do with an internship with a chemical company. During that work he and a team of chemical engineers developed the imitation black cherry flavoring used in most black cherry flavored candies and sodas today. He worked for that company for a few years afterward but eventually quit as the flavoring took off and he was able to live off of its earnings.
Daniel never asked Thaddeus why he had sent him all these clippings. He understood. After leaving the police station, he opened the rest of the envelopes in the car. Most of them came with a little letter, usually just a short note that read: "Look what Aunt Jean kept." The letters got longer, though he rarely said much of anything besides talk of progress on scraping paint off the house. Sometimes he mentioned that he had bought another miniature glass animal to add to their aunt's collection. He would describe them but they were almost always glass birds, mostly geese. He never said anything in his letters about life outside the lines of their aunt's property.
Twelve envelopes into the bundle Thaddeus added something new to the bottom of his letter. No matter the length, each letter before ended with:
Thaddeus S Balk"
In between these lines he would sign his name. This time, there was a postscript: g3. As he opened the rest of the letters, Daniel noticed that each one contained the same postscript. Most of the letters were accompanied by clippings pertaining to either black cherry flavoring or genealogy work he had done on the Balk family lineage. The letters themselves shifted from the quotidian events of Thaddeus' life to openly hateful comments about Daniel, his wife, and his apparent refusal to answer the letters. Cheerfully interspersed between these attacks were nuggets of information about their heritage and quotes from famous chess players. The final few letters were not really letters so much as they were note cards with "g3" printed in big block letters, also accompanied by the usual clippings about black cherry chemicals and the illicit adventures of their early American bootlegging ancestors.
When Daniel spoke with Thaddeus in jail, before they sent him to an actual prison and before the prison doctor deemed him mentally unfit to finish his five year sentence and before they sent him to a state mental health ward where he died, Thaddeus refused to talk about what he had done. The only topics he would pursue were related to the clippings. Daniel allowed him to steer the conversation before finally breaking down and heatedly reminding him of the time he was about to spend in prison. Other than halting the pace of their conversation, it didn't faze him a bit. He grinned and exhaled as he leaned back in his chair. He made eye contact with his cousin and they sat silently for a very long five or ten seconds before he spoke.
"Cheer up, Dan. Now we have some time to finish that chess match."
BIO: Chris Deaton, all-star cashier and workhorse writer, is an admirer of leaves, an aficionado of ales, and a lover of dogs. He currently lives in sunny Boulder, Colorado, where he is finishing his bachelor’s degree and working on a novel. This is his first published work.