Like most people, I tend to be parsimonious with my mercy. Mostly because time is like blood to me. I only have so much. When you are a letter carrier, people try to befriend you. Often they have nowhere to go. They are prisoners of their maladies and handicaps. They pester you as if you were a social worker with nowhere to be yourself.
“Where’s my check, Mr. Mailman? Where’s my check.?”
This is the oldest joke in the book. The government doesn’t send out as many checks as it used to, until recently.
“If it hits my hand, I put it in your box,” I always tell them.
Mostly it is a job of isolation, so you welcome a bit of company. Early on though, you realize “a bit of company” can bite you in the ass. Offer the shut-ins some small-talk and they start accusing you of stealing. leave knives in the mailbox or, worse yet, love letters.
One day an elderly customer sent out a bill with her return address in the window. Hating to see it come back to her with the stamp cancelled and fearing she might be confused by my leaving it in her mailbox, I knocked.
She stuck her silver head out. Stick thin and deathly pale, I figured her to be well into her nineties.
“What is it,” she asked suspiciously. “I put a letter out for you to take. Did you get it? Oh, I hope no one stole it.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I have it right here.”
She extended a trembling index finger toward the envelope, as if seeking confirmation that our encounter wasn’t a phantasm of her dementia.
“It has a stamp,” she said huffily.
The perforated square in the corner with an American flag was indeed plain and proud to see.
“The postage is fine, but you have your own address showing in the payment window. It will just come back to you if I take it.”
“Oh, my. Oh, my,” she fretted anxiously. “Please wait for me. This is late as it is.” She snatched the envelope back and closed her front door.
I waited on her porch. This had been our first interaction, but I knew from her mail before I knocked that she was old and lived alone. She seemed like someone who eked a meager living off Social Security payments. Her roof was mostly tarpaper showing with the shingles curled into toenail slivers by decades of sun. It was an old clapboard house, surrounded by apartment buildings in an ever-growing city.
I glanced impatiently at the time as five minutes passed into ten—a long duration to someone who is constantly on the move while on a government clock. Finally, she reemerged in a tizzy about destroying the envelope with the good stamp still attached.
“Won’t you come inside?” she begged. “My fingers won’t work for me. I need your help.”
I looked guiltily up and down the quiet urban street, nothing returning my gaze except the vacant headlights of parked cars. I was sure entering her home violated several postal regulations, but mercy compelled me to obey.
I immediately realized my mistake, feeling I’d been tricked into entering someone’s crypt. There was no sunlight and a thick layer of dust coated the antique furniture. Judging by the bedding and mattress on the floor, she was only utilizing this small portion of the house. Several buckets had been placed in the dimly lit living room to capture leaking rainwater. A rotary phone on an end table seemed very out of place in the age of flip-phones. Much to my shock, the woman did not have pants on and was scantily attired in yellow panties under a gauzy cotton T-shirt. A bony specimen, her skin seemed to sag from her body like dripping candle wax. I could see the blue licorice ropes of her veins as she fetched the letter and I yearned to be away from her, to be outside where I belonged, in the world of the living.
But I knew this was my penance for caring, for being kind.
I opened the letter for her, being ever so careful not to tear it. She had forgotten to place the check inside. I waited as she located her checkbook, coaching her along as to who to make it out to and for how much. Her home reeked from her incontinence—a dusty piss smell like chlorine and tuna fish. I placed the check with her shaky scrawl in the envelope with the address of the electric company visible in the clear plastic window. She fetched me a roll of Scotch tape and I sealed the letter for her and placed it in my satchel. Finally, I escaped her gratuitous thank-yous and found myself alone again, gulping fresh air in the purifying sunshine.
Not many months after that, I encountered her son lugging boxes from the house to his car. He confirmed my suspicion that the woman had died. She had mentioned me prior to her passing and he thanked me for looking after her. It is an ism not mentioned often enough that so many of our elderly waste away with only cats and houseplants to provide them solace. Death can seem terribly cruel or terribly merciful depending on the circumstances of the deceased. The great curse of longevity is that, in the final years, a person will remember more of the dead than they know of the living. They become like ghosts, the letters in the mailbox the only verification of their continued existence.
This woman, whose life I witnessed so briefly, must have inspired a great deal of love in her youth. I will never know her beauty or her intelligence. I cannot remember her exact address, let alone her name. I know my descriptions of her are as inhumane as the effects of time itself. But as a writer, I can only report what I witness, and most of it I cannot change. She lived on my first route after making regular, back when I carried out of the Lake Street Post Office. That facility was destroyed by the George Floyd riots. The letter carriers assigned there now work out of an abandoned K-Mart. And the elderly women in their yellow panties still wait for them.