I lay awake in the half-light of early morning and listened to my wife breathing. It was January in Minneapolis. In a couple of hours, I would be trudging through the snow with a stack of junk mail balanced on my arm and a wad of letters clutched in my hand. I felt as if I were in a nest high up in a tree, the wind swaying the branches that cradled me. Soon Emily and I would buy a house together and try to have a baby. The anticipation of these events did not make me feel like a father bird. Rather, I felt like an egg. Which made Emily, I supposed, the mama bird keeping me warm. A childhood image entered my mind of a robin’s egg broken in the grass, the ants crawling upon the blob of yellow yolk. I dismissed the thought and allowed my hand to rest on her hip for a moment before I rose to make coffee.
Emily and I shared an apartment in Uptown. We had been married seven months. The wedding band still felt strange on my finger, but it made me feel good about myself. Sometimes we twined our fingers together so the bands were side by side. We were silly like that in those days. We had lived together for about two years when I proposed. I was driving home from work one day and I had this sudden feeling that seemed to be centered in my chest. I would have been happy living with her forever in that apartment in Uptown. I liked having a girlfriend. I didn’t really want a wife. But something inside me told me I owed her more than that. I got home and sat down beside her. She was correcting papers on the couch while she watched Entertainment Tonight. I said it bluntly, without preamble: “So I was thinking maybe we should get married.” I really wasn’t sure what she would say. I was trying not to paint her into a corner with a lot of romanticism. I had taken her by surprise, but she didn’t hesitate when she answered. I’ve always underestimated how much she loved me because it always seemed too good to be true.
I looked out the window and Girard Avenue was aglow with an inch of new-fallen snow. I ate a bowl of Cheerios and drank my coffee as I read news stories on the internet. Half the world seemed to be on fire. I could never wrap my mind around the politics of why people were fighting. The cultures were just too different. Basically, it seemed like a bunch of vendettas that could never end because making peace would be an admission that all the bloodshed had been meaningless. I felt sick about myself for even following such matters. I dressed as quietly as I could, then went outside to shovel.
Emily and I were the caretakers of the building. It gave us a nice discount on the rent. She handled the vacuuming and mopping inside the building and I took care of the outdoor chores. Outside of winter, there really wasn’t much to do besides mowing the shaded patch of grass that barely grew and picking up a few cigarette butts. Every year someone piled the new phone books that no one wanted under the mailboxes. I would let them sit there a week before throwing them away.
I stepped outside and inhaled the frigid air. A lot of people ask me how I can stand working in the cold all day. There isn’t anything tough about me. I just know how to dress properly. I unlocked the shed and selected a shovel. I decided the powdery snow that had fallen didn’t necessitate firing up the snow blower. I began by clearing the snow between the building and the garages. The sound of the metal blade scraping the concrete seemed loud in the stillness. I was startled by some movement in the sky that at first I supposed to be a bald eagle, but upon closer viewing turned out to be a crow flying by with a white piece of bread in its beak. Scavengers seemed to do well in the city. The gray squirrels had gnawed holes through all the trash cans. Last summer, Emily and I had witnessed a raccoon lifting her cubs one by one out of a storm sewer at twilight. I finished shoveling and went back inside for another cup of coffee. Just before leaving, I poked my head inside the bedroom and Emily stirred. I told her how much it had snowed and that I loved her. Then I grabbed my backpack and hiked three blocks north to Lake Street where I waited for the 21 bus to take me to the post office.
After punching the time-clock I went over to my case and looked at my mail. I had next to nothing. It was the midst of the Great Recession and I worried about how much longer I would have a job. I started throwing what I had into my case. I had been working about ten minutes when I noticed how hot it was inside the station. I was sweating inside my uniform. The blowers were pumping out hot air. I looked up at the clock that was mounted beside a spy-slot in the catwalk. I had a hard time imagining a postal inspector crawling around up there, but that spy-slot made me feel like I was being watched all the time. I felt like I was in hell. It must have been eighty-five degrees. Other carriers started grumbling from their cases. Finally, the clerks opened the garage doors on the dock to try and ventilate the place. The manager made an announcement on the intercom that maintenance was coming to fix the heating system.
I finished casing up my route just before break time. It felt good to step out into the cold. Even the air was bad inside a post office. I bummed a cigarette from one of the other carriers. I offered him some money, but he wouldn’t accept it. I lit up and held the smoke in my lungs for a few seconds before blowing it out the side of the mouth. I leaned my head back as the nicotine buzz tingled in my brain. In the distance, I could see a swarm of seagulls circling over the Nicollet K-mart parking lot.
When the post office hired me, I hadn’t had a cigarette in over two years. I was running two marathons a year and was in the best shape of my adult life. A manager tried to fire me during my probationary period for reasons never completely within my understanding. He wrote a letter informing me that in ten days my employment would be terminated because I had failed to meet the Postal Service’s standards of efficiency. He had a supervisor give me the bad news on a Saturday while he was at home. I was devastated. At the time, Emily was in China teaching English for the summer. I have never handled stress well. After work, I bought a pack of Camels from a Super America. I told Emily about it over the telephone as I chain-smoked behind our apartment building. She tried to be supportive, but with all the miles separating us I felt like I was going through it alone. The supervisor had told me there was nothing I could say or do to keep my job. Since I was under probation, there wasn’t anything the union could do for me formally either. I left a message with the union office anyway appealing for help. The branch president got back to me and I explained the injustice of the situation. She said she would talk to the manager and see what she could do. That phone call made me feel like I wasn’t completely helpless. I resolved to go back to work and fight to keep my job.
A lot of managers like to get the new carriers running and skipping their breaks so they can make their numbers for downtown. Everyone believes the job is going to be easy when they first start out. I was no different. I had large blisters on both my big toes after the first week. It’s an incredibly tough job. The accumulation of injury and the toll of the seasons produce a weariness that only those who have experienced it can understand. Having done it now for over a decade, I can honestly say that my career as a letter carrier is the longest marathon I will ever run.
As I listened to the manager lecture me about my shortcomings from the other side of his desk, I got the impression he wanted me to grovel for my job. I just couldn’t do it. As I patiently defended myself, I could read in his face the sadistic pleasure he was taking in the whole situation. Instinctively, I knew that he was a bully and I would only be encouraging him by debasing myself further.
On Monday, I swaggered up to the desk with a grin that belied my inner-nervousness. The supervisor’s face turned a bright crimson at the sight of me. I could tell immediately that he didn’t like me going to the union. He was an enormous man with hair sprouting from his ears who seemed to be forever mopping the sweat that flowed down his bald head. He gave me my assignment for the day and I went out and did it. It was a pretty anxious time. Word got around the station about what they were planning and all the carriers seemed to rally around me. After the ten days had passed, the manager called me into his office and told me he was keeping me on. For better or worse, I was a mailman.
For the next three years, I wasn’t much else. I worked nine or ten hours a day, six days a week. I just wanted to make regular so I could have my own route, get a day off and have a life. Marathons were a thing of the past.
Now, some three years later, it seemed I had succumbed at last to the boredom of the job and the depression of winter. Each day I walked up and down the same city blocks. I fought the same dilapidated mail boxes and made small-talk with the same crippled shut-ins for whom I was their only friend. Perhaps it had something to do with the garbage everywhere or the smog from the freeway. Maybe it was the cockroaches whose fine legs reminded me of eyelashes, winking at me from behind the mailboxes in apartment vestibules. The bulk of my efforts were destined for a landfill. I struggled to deliver mail to people who seemed to not want to be found. I had to remind myself that I was there for the paycheck.
On my first day on the route, I had been confronted by the ugly sight of a blood-stained mattress left beside the curb. It looked like someone had been gutted. Across the street lived a pair of guys who always came downstairs when the mail arrived. I inquired about the mattress and they informed me the paramedics had carried a man out the night before. I asked if he was dead. “Hard to say,” said the bearded older man whose name was Roy. “He ain’t been back.” Then he laughed.
Later, I found out Roy had worked as a “turkey wrangler” in Worthington. He loaded and unloaded slaughterhouse-bound turkeys from semis. It was interesting what you learned about people. Up until that point, I had never known such a thing as a “turkey wrangler” even existed. His roommate was a skinny nervous sort of fellow with jailhouse tattoos. One day Emily was perusing the sex offender registry as she researched our house-hunting efforts. I glanced over at the laptop and his name jumped out at me. He had done time for molesting a young girl down in Iowa. Their apartment loomed over an elementary school.
I had one building where the stench of pot smoke was so strong that I had to hold my breath. A baby was always crying inside. I only hoped the sound and the smell didn’t come from the same unit. One morning as I delivered mail in a darkened apartment entryway, I could hear a domestic argument. A woman was verbally tearing into a man, she just kept going. Then I heard two sounds, the second louder than the first–him hitting her and her hitting the floor. I hurriedly locked up the boxes and got out of there.
One day an elderly black man named Stanley began to gesture and grunt at me in agitation. He had a tracheotomy hole in his throat. I asked him if he was having trouble getting his mail out of the box and offered to hand it to him. He became more flustered and began uttering the same unintelligible syllable. I apologized and explained that I had no idea what he was trying to say. He covered his throat with his hand and breathed deeply, mustering all his strength. “OAT!” he said forcefully with a fury in his eye, “I need to OAT!” And then I understood. He wanted to know where his polling place was so he could vote for Obama. I picked up one of the election mailings that littered the floor and pointed to the address of the elementary school. There were rare moments like that when it all seemed to matter, but for the most part, I knew I couldn’t change anything. All I could do was drop the mail in the box and walk away.
I sat glumly in my postal vehicle, looking down at the pack of cigarettes in my hand. I hated myself for continuing to smoke. Why did I do something that was expensive, made me smell bad and could one day give me cancer? The answer wasn’t complicated. I was an addict. I knew I needed to quit and to do it I knew I needed a new routine. I was six years older than my wife. She always reminded me of this fact when she pestered me to quit, even though she liked to have one herself when she was stressed. Our landlord always complained about the smokers in the building as if they were some pest deserving of extermination. Emily and I could never admit to him that we were members of the dreaded nicotine club. On Saturday nights after coming home from dinner, we would enjoy a smoke together and laugh about it like two naughty teenagers getting something over on their parents.
Up on the rooftops I noticed birds perched around the chimneys, warming themselves like homeless men with blankets around their shoulders gathered around a fire. I chuckled wryly as I recalled my manager’s words when he had me in his office: “Your head should be down looking at the mail. You’re not getting paid to stare up at the birdies.” For several minutes, I gazed at their silhouettes against the drab horizon. They had found a way to persist despite the pollution and asphalt. My thoughts turned to the early robins, those first few red-breasts who signal the arrival of spring. I had memories of seeing them just before a late-season storm. At night, I would think of them huddled and freezing in the tree branches as the sleet lashed at the window. The next day they would simply be gone and, although I had no proof, I would know they had perished. In that moment, thinking back to those dead robins, I realized the certainty of my own death. Whether I quit smoking or continued, I knew that I was in control of my behavior. It was time for me to adapt, just like the birds.
Later, as I descended the icy steps of a duplex on Pleasant Avenue, my boots slipped out from under me. The mail flew from my grasp as my back hit the concrete. I just lay there at a forty-five-degree angle to the Earth looking up at a sky the color of car exhaust. I shouted an expletive that seemed to hang unanswered in the cold, filling in the hollow spaces between the monoliths of brick. Sometimes the streets got so empty that I felt as if I were the lone inhabitant of a ghost world