Two weeks after my father died, my mother was going through his suits with an eye toward donating them to the Goodwill. My father had been a snappy dresser even in his later years. My mother was a strong woman who’d prepared herself for tasks like this. As she pulled one of the suits off its fragrant cedar hanger, a gold bracelet fell out of the sleeve. My father had given her the bracelet in the first year of their marriage, 1958. My mother lost it 23 years ago, on a vacation in Tuscany.
A month after the bracelet reappeared, I made a 179-yard hole-in-one playing in a charity golf tournament and won a Cadillac Escalade — the odds are only about 12,500-to-1: I looked it up. But I only play golf about four times a year and I’m lousy, although my dad hoped that someday I’d take to the game and play it more seriously. As in most things, he had the last laugh. I broke down and wept on the tee box as representatives of the dealership filmed me, and my group of playing partners screamed like the mayors of Crazytown.
Given these events, it seemed less unlikely that my friend Kate’s dead husband, Blake, might turn up as our new mailman.
It has come to this: I’ve timed my lunch breaks so as to be at my desk around 1:15, when the metallic sound of the mailbox opening and closing — with the intermeggio of envelopes and magazines landing with a clang in the bottom — suggests a world of possibilities. Mostly I’m waiting for checks, and you know where they’re supposed to be. I’m a freelance technical writer and work from home, though these days I’m home more than I’m working.
Sometimes, if I have outgoing letters (mostly bills — nobody sends letters anymore) I’ll open the front door when I see the mailman coming up the steps and offer a polite greeting and over-emphasize my gratitude as I hand him the envelopes, because the mailman just isn’t someone you want not liking you. I’ve come to know the regular carrier by his first name — Brian — and even some of the subs who show up when Brian is sick or in the Caribbean.
But this time when I hear footsteps on the stairs outside and see the blue-gray blur approaching the front door, and open it, I’m looking at Blake, who was killed in a climbing accident on Mt. Hood last year.
“Blake,” I say, knowing how stupid this is.
I’ve startled him with the opening of the door just as he’s slipping today’s pile of junk into the box. He looks up, simultaneously dropping a stack of bills and my copy of Outside Magazine onto the tile of the front porch.
“Oh, hey, Jeff,” he says, a little sheepishly, glancing down at the magazine as he picks it up and hands it to me.
I start to speak but nothing comes out. He smiles wanly.
“Do you have something for me?” he says after a moment, a little impatiently.
I open and close my mouth like a trout.
He nods to indicate my hands, which are shaking. They hold several clean, stamped envelopes.
“Outgoing?” he says.
I relinquish the envelopes, and he slides them into the bag he carries outlaw style, slung over one shoulder and around his back, and he moves on to my neighbor’s house.
I don’t mention anything to Susan when she comes home from work. I’m no youngster, and maybe this is the start of something.
A few days later I’m at my desk when I hear the rustling of the mailbox and open the front door.
“Hey, Jeff,” he says. He rummages through his bag. “I guess I’ll get used to you sneaking up on me like this.”
“Blake,” I say, as he carries on his work.
“Looks like you’re still cycling,” he says, handing me the bike magazine that will go directly into the recycle pile, and continues on about his business.
“Hang on a second,” I say. He’s already down the steps and reaching into the saddlebag for my neighbor’s mail but he stops and looks back at me. He’s wearing the same round wire-rimmed glasses he always wore. They’re retro and make his eyes look too big, like he’s always surprised. Like he must have looked when the slope above him gave way up on the mountain. I note the scar from an earlier climbing mishap just above his right eyebrow.
“Um,” I say, trying to think of a way to broach the subject.
This is about to become possibly the dumbest sentence I’ve ever uttered — worse than when I mixed up my lines while performing in Othello back in college. I delivered something from Twelfth Night instead, and my fellow actors carried on with the rest of Twelfth Night from there. After the show, one reviewer called it a stroke of directorial genius, although the director kicked me out of the drama club. Mostly, people reiterated that they never really understood Shakespeare.
“Yeah, I know, right?” Blake says, shaking his head.
I first knew Kate when we were single after college back in Manhattan. She lived in the apartment opposite my best friend Martin, and sometimes when Martin had parties — which was often — Kate and I would cross the hall to her place and I’d spend the night.
I was an idiot then, not recognizing what I had. She was smart and funny, with a midwestern naiveté like a cold, sweet wine. She worked in advertising. She was a superstar on her way up, although I couldn’t see it. I wanted to be a novelist, and had years of failure and disappoint ahead of me.
Then I got a job offer as a technical writer for a software company based in Oregon. I announced my imminent departure at one of Martin’s parties and everyone thought I was joking. I think I went mostly for the drama of it — I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘Oregon’ the correct way when I first moved here. I found the trees ominous.
But then I met Susan — she’s an ER nurse — when I went to the hospital because I had a plug of wax in my ear that was making me dizzy, plus I couldn’t hear anything on that side. She thought me utterly entertaining, with my New York accent and sense of irony — which was really anger, but she couldn’t see that at the time.
And just that quickly my ‘statement’ move became permanent, though it was the last thing I’d expected; over the years my connection to Manhattan has become more tenuous, more of a historical set piece. It’s only recently that I recognized that I’ll never be moving back.
Kate came to visit some years ago after seeing a client in Seattle. I was already dating Susan, and we all went out together and the girls hit it off. We took Kate into the mountains and she said she felt like she was coming home for the first time. The air that day was as crisp and delicious as a fall apple and the glaciers shined with menace. When we dropped her at the airport she exclaimed — like so many of our eastern visitors — that she was going to move here. Except that eight months later she did.
I was relieved when she met Blake, who — to use a climbing term — became an anchor for her. I think after being in New York she appreciated the quiet he provided. Their relationship remained an enigma to me but I was happy for her. Our brief relationship faded into a quirk of time, as if it hadn’t happened. We never spoke of it, except via occasional reference to Martin and his parties and how he was doing now, but the rest lay between us unsaid, like a silent mountain that seems huge when you’re just below it but assumes perspective when the horizon line retreats farther and farther away.
There’s no way that I’m telling anyone about this new development. Definitely not Susan, certainly not Kate, who’s still taking Blake’s death hard a year and a half later — he left her utterly alone with two young girls. Blake seems to understand that I won’t blow his cover.
We begin to develop a relationship — it doesn’t run deep or anything, but it’s more than we ever established when he was alive. He was always recalcitrant; when we ventured to their suburban enclave for dinner on rare occasions he hardly spoke. He stared off out the picture windows as if dreaming of the mountains even at night, even with good wine and the company of friends. I took it to mean he thought he was superior to us, possibly because he was a climber. But now I feel I’ve gained the advantage.
One day I ask him if he’s going to be our permanent carrier. I mean this as a slight dig, as if to imply that he sort of works for me now.
“I just don’t know how long I’m here for,” he tells me quietly. “I think it was a mistake that I got sent here.” He seems agitated, and concerned.
Another day I ask, “Is this what happens to all of us?”
He laughs — something I don’t remember him doing much when he was alive.
“You mean becoming a civil servant? I have no idea. Nobody tells me anything.”
The next time I go too far, because when I say, “Does everyone come back?” he makes believe he hasn’t heard me. He smiles and hands me our mail.
“I’m a little behind schedule, today, Jeff,” he says. “I stopped for an espresso. I still love espresso. But I can’t eat meat anymore. You should stop eating meat,” he says emphatically, raising one eyebrow.
I’ve also noticed that even though our service contracts are all intact, since Blake took over our route, we haven’t received a gas bill or a cable bill or an electric bill.
I mention this to him, and he says, “Oh, it’s the least I can do.”
Not long after, I hear the mail flap and hurry to the front door, ready to take things a step farther.
“Hey, Jeff,” the mailman says.
“Brian,” I say. He is tanned and he’s lost some weight. He moves down the stairs with a little pop in his step.
“Not quite the weather I’m used to,” he says, inclining his head upward, toward the leaves turning yellow and red on the trees, the gray skies beyond. While I’m trying to figure out something to say he moves on to my neighbor’s house through the break in the hedges. He’s already dropped today’s stack in our mailbox.
I take the mail inside. I begin to sort it — what’s mine, what’s Susan’s, what’s ours together. Along with the pile of Christmas catalogues is a copy of a climbing magazine, and as I consider the cover — a rocky black peak dusted with snow — I see a slip of paper protruding from the pages.
“I know you loved her,” it says. “She always cared for you, too.”
Perhaps my advantage was there all along, like a pyramid of granite, poking through the clouds, waiting to be ascended. This is a kindness from Blake, and perhaps that was always there, as well.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock
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