I carried mail on a rural route in the Durham/Chapel Hill area for awhile, when I was just starting out, and through the luck of the draw I wound up subbing for one of the hardest cases imaginable. She was a divorcee who’d sent one husband incommunicado and after working for her a month or so, I figured he’d parachuted into some hostile wilderness and lived by roasting grubs on little fires made of desert scrub and twigs, grateful he’d escaped, his face immobile in a kind of zenlike resignation.
Her children weren’t so much surly as estranged, and were projecting their dissatisfaction with her on everybody they could cut direct. I was introduced to the backs of their heads one day early on during training when we stopped by her trailer to pick up a couple extra packs of cigarettes for the last hour of the route. I can’t tell you what most of the kids looked like to this day, except the daughter who emerged from the back of the trailer (the sleeping area?) muscles tight, and a murderous look on her face, framed in bottle black shoulder length hair ( I should have known this was an exurban manifestation of the Chapel Hill goth look) She looked as if she were about to join her father, angrily combing the trailer for some of the little things that might make life bearable in the interior of Australia, or among the Berbers.
Over time (actually within a couple of weeks) I developed a similar opinion of Pollie, reinforced by meeting her previous sub, Robert. When I told him who I was working for, he just shook his head and said “You poor S.O.B.” and added “I got out just before she sapped my will to live completely. I finally got a job working the scales at the county landfill. Something with a shred of dignity. I might be able to set you up.”
I also had the great misfortune of starting out during the six weeks prior to Christmas, when mail volume was at its heaviest. Pollie warned me that there would be gifts in certain mailboxes for her, and she kept tabs on them. “Don’t take any of my stuff. I know who leaves things in the boxes for me, and I’ll know if you took it.”
This sounded eerily similar to a note left in the box at a rest home about midway through the route that housed a number of schizophrenics and shook them down monthly for their federal assistance. One of the inmates was always accusing me (and Pollie) of opening his mail and purloining his winnings from the Canadian lottery, in addition to his prolific correspondence with the Michaels Jordan and Jackson. He actually slipped outdoors one day, confronted me at the oversize rural mailbox, and asked me what I’d done with his Twelve Million Dollars.

I refrained from telling him that Pollie had taken the lot and purchased a beach cottage and a shiatsu foot massager, because Pollie would have gotten wind of that kind of subterfuge, and she’d make every effort to freshen up my hell on earth with new, more excruciating features.

The best I could do was try to assure him neither of us had taken his windfall, and to tell him to be patient. After all, my own ship seemed to be taking its sweetass time in coming through.
He had it in for me from that day forward, as did the guy who, in a very tiny hand, painstakingly gave the directions for each of his letters’ destinations. I attempted to explain to him that he simply had to put the proper address somewhere on the envelope, and use actual stamps, as opposed to excising the “No postage necessary if mailed in the United States” from bulk mail promotions and taping it to the envelope in lieu of, you know, postage.
I also earned the ire of one child who met me at the bank of feebly maintained mailboxes for a trailer park and asked me, like some goddamn moppet out of one of the early talkies, “Mister, why are you always bringin’ my mama and daddy lotsa Bills?”

Christmas mail had already destroyed my public persona, and I didn’t miss a beat. “Because it’s my job, son.”

I’m sure this will merely be a footnote in the catalog of shit they read to me before they kick open the trap door to hell.

One of the indexed headings will be from the week before Christmas that year, on a day when Pollie had called me at 4:00 AM to let me know my still drunken ass would be sorting and running mail for twelve extremely difficult hours, during most of which I’d be multitasking: casing the mail, loading it into the vehicle, carrying it, and withdrawing from a heavy dose of single malt Scotch. I knew when I was dressing myself for work that I was going to die, and it was going to be a half-assed day for it.

My transition from bartender to rural mail carrier associate had been graciously aided by a regular at the bar who came into possession of a 1970 Olds Cutlass, courtesy a delinquent renter, and sold it to me for $125.00 (I needed a bench seat so I could drive and throw mail from the middle of the car). The only problem with this vehicle was the takeoff. If you hit the gas pedal a trifle too hard, it could pull sufficient gravity to sling you across the seat and away from the brakes altogether. It was the first in a long succession of vehicles that I had to fight in order to live.
When I finally got the mail and the Christmas packages loaded that morning, every other carrier had been gone for a couple of hours. I hadn’t learned the case, or learned how to learn a case yet, and reading Pollie’s Harappan script in soft beginner’s pencil would have been difficult going for a papyrologist. One who was not recently drunk, even.
I put the car in reverse and looked out the side mirror, because the view from the central mirror was entirely blocked by large cardboard boxes. This is how I plowed over the thirty foot halogen lamp pole that had recently been installed for new carriers who might return late.

Knocked the motherfucker down. Pinched the trunk closed for good.

I walked into the station to tell them I’d just terminated myself. I’d had an accident on the job while on the associate’s tenuous probation. I was done. Curiously, the bomblike noise of my car striking the anodized metal pole hadn’t stirred any interest from the clerks or management. When I walked in the shop, there wasn’t a single soul around.

It was as though they were all hiding.

I suddenly realized how deeply stuck I was. They couldn’t even fire me, because that would put them in the awful position of having to run this route themselves. Their hands were tied. And right now, they were cowering under their desks. They might fire me in another couple of weeks, if they could find another idiot…

Even the prospect of ironclad job security didn’t help me that day. It was growing dark by the time I’d gotten a quarter of the way through the route, up by the Quaker school (The haunt of children of UNC professors, destined to write vampire novels or work for Merge Records) The mailbox here was a turnaround, but Pollie told me to check the next box up, just in case some migrant farmers had moved into the derelict old house it stood for. It seemed like every delay that could crop up was happening today. The flag was up, so I pulled up to check it out. I expected a change of address notice and was half looking for my pen when I absently opened the box. The dead rat tied to the door of the box banged dully against the frame of the car before it landed, decorated with its Christmas ribbon, on my lap.

After I determined that I had not, in fact, shit on myself, I cried softly for a few minutes.

Remembering what Pollie had told me about gifts, I placed the rat back in the box, adjusted its ribbon, and made sure the string was secured tightly to its remaining leg.
Then I closed the box carefully and put the flag back up.

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