Ghost Writer

It was intended to be a decoration, a piece of brightly colored lawn art. But after Jin’s wife died, it became his link to a world without her.

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The last gift Jin’s wife gave him was a vintage Royal Mail pillar post box, a four-foot-tall poppy-red cylindrical monstrosity that she ordered from a cast iron company in Staffordshire, England. The cost to have it delivered to California was enormous — almost as much as the thing itself. Jin’s wife had always been so careful about managing their household expenses on his modest mailman’s salary that he was truly startled. He handed the illustrated order form back to her without a word.

“To celebrate your retirement,” she said. “You don’t like it?”

“It’s nice,” Jin hedged. “But it’s not a U.S. Postal Service box. See, it has the initials of the last English king on it. G.R., “George Rex.” You should cancel this order and save the money.”

His wife smiled like someone humoring a toddler. “Yes, of course you’re right. But a mailman is a mailman and a mailbox is a mailbox. And it will be beautiful on our lawn.”

Calling the tiny square of grass in front of their house a lawn was almost an affectation. It took the yard service less than 15 minutes a week to keep it trimmed and the leaves from two jacarandas and a lopsided pepper tree raked and hauled away. For $200 a month! Jin could have done the work himself for a fraction of the cost, but the homeowner’s association required the service. Just as they required permission to paint a house a different color, or to put up more than three strands of Christmas lights, or, or, or. The list of regulations filled a handbook Jin was given when he and his wife had moved in five years ago, downsizing from an older — and better — home to this silly neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses shoulder-to-shoulder and uniformly neat.

Jin retired in May, and his wife died the weekend after Labor Day. No symptoms of heart disease until it killed her in her sleep. They’d done none of the things they planned to do after he retired. No road trip to Seattle to visit his cousin. No vineyard tours through Napa and Sonoma. No books read, no closets cleaned, no utility shed organized. No morning yoga classes at the Y.

For most of his 40-year career, Jin had walked a mail route like a cop on a beat, an oversized leather messenger bag slung over one shoulder. His back, his knees, his feet, the weather, the hours, the years. “Give me time to do nothing for a while,” he’d said from his recliner, the TV remote in one hand. His wife made him tea and left travel brochures on the bedside table.

A month after her death, a brochure for San Francisco was still there. Almost everything else that reminded him of his wife was gone. Her friends from church boxed up her clothes and took them to Goodwill. Jin threw away most of the dusty knickknacks that cluttered the shelves and dresser tops — dolls and flowers and wooden plaques thanking her for donations made to this or that charity. He hated to think how much money she had given away and gotten nothing in return except for these ugly tchotchkes. When letters came addressed to her soliciting more contributions, he wrote angry comments about grifters and charlatans and risked the L.A. traffic to drive to the main post office and put the return envelopes in the outgoing mail.

He tried to stay busy. When the weather was pleasant, he walked the three blocks to a small retail area, an artificial town square the planners of the retirement community used to lure city people to buy here. See, their pitch went, you can have all the amenities of city life in the safety of a gated community for seniors. The retail choices were ludicrous — a Starbucks, an overpriced organic grocery, an upscale women’s clothing consignment shop, a restaurant that served pizza as flavorless as cardboard. There was even a postcard-perfect church at one end of the square — a white clapboard steepled building that, as far as Jin could tell, was used only by an amateur theater group. His wife had liked their walks to what she called the town, waving and calling out names, stopping to chat with people on the sidewalk. A trip with her took hours.

He gave up TV, partly because it was boring and repetitive and partly because he blamed it for his wife’s death, or more precisely, for the stumbling way he’d wasted those few months of retirement before he lost her. Instead, he sat on the small porch so narrow that he had to move his chair every half hour to stay in the shade. All day he watched old people shamble by on pilgrimages to buy organic oranges or to fritter away their pensions on bad coffee.

He was making a sandwich the day his doorbell rang. Jin considered ignoring it. None of his former co-workers kept in touch, and his wife’s church friends had fallen away. The neighborhood association forbade door-to-door soliciting, and part of the hefty annual dues made sure the gate at the neighborhood entrance was always staffed with guards whose job it was to keep out the riffraff.

The bell rang again.

Standing on the porch was a bearded man with a clipboard.

“Mr. Wat … uh … ” He held the clipboard for Jin to see.

“Watanabe,” Jin said. He squinted into the bright noonday sun at the flatbed truck parked in his driveway. Two men in matching uniforms were wrestling a large crate to the ground.

“Sign here,” the bearded man said, “and tell me where you want this.”

“I didn’t order anything,” Jin said. One of the uniformed men levered a crowbar while the other man pulled the side of the crate free. The bright red post box was inside.

“Oh,” he said. “I forgot about that.”

He was so defeated by the reality of the damn thing that he didn’t protest while the workmen dug a hole, inserted a guide pole, and bolted the post box in place. He half hoped that it violated some neighborhood association guideline and he would be told to take it down — though it would be like his wife to have already made a deal with someone.

The next morning, with coffee mug in hand, Jin made his way down the driveway to fetch his newspaper from his mailbox, his real one. The red post box on the opposite side of the driveway looked immoveable, permanent in a way that made him uneasy. It certainly was brightly colored. In the morning light, he noticed what looked like a chip in the paint along the cap-shaped top. If the workmen had damaged it —

Not a chip in the paint, but a piece of paper sticking up from the mail slot. The warranty or the installation instructions, most likely, left there by the negligent workmen.

But no, it was an envelope, jammed.

An unfamiliar name was scrawled across the front. In the upper-left corner was the address of the house across the street. Where a stamp should have been was a smudged fingerprint.

A prankster, then, or more likely, someone in the early throes of dementia. An ex-Brit, perhaps, a doddery old fool confused by the post box into thinking he was back in the reign of poor stuttering Bertie. How long had Elizabeth been on the throne? Since the 1950’s at least. Long enough for someone to lose his mind.

Or her mind. The handwriting, though barely legible, was feminine, the old Palmer method responsible for a generation of secretaries and teachers and housewives having uniform pen strokes. Even his wife, daughter of an illiterate taro farmer in Hilo, had written with the same practiced precision.

The name on the front of the envelope was male — Johnny Alder — which added to Jin’s conviction that the writer was a woman.

He couldn’t recall ever seeing a woman in the house across the street. Or a man either. Or anyone. With a start, he realized that he couldn’t name or identify any of his neighbors. He’d never needed to. His wife was the one who spoke to people. He was the mailman who came home tired from work, ate supper, watched the nightly news, and went to bed by 10.

Envelope in hand, he crossed the street and walked up the uneven flagstones to the neighbor’s house.

A teenager answered the door. A boy, though Jin had to look twice to make sure. Long, uneven bangs dyed jet black covered his eyes.

“This isn’t mine,” Jin said, thrusting the envelope forward.

The boy lifted his hand and tucked his hair behind his ear. His eyes were large and luminous and framed by thick eyebrows. With his hair out of the way, he looked older than Jin first thought, a patchy beard and moustache making his face appear dirty. Sixteen? Seventeen? Not much older than that, surely. The boy took the envelope and turned it over.

“Oh, it’s Gramma’s,” he said. “I saw her writing this yesterday.”

“She put it in my post box,” Jin said. To his own ears he sounded aggrieved, like a neighborhood crank. He softened his tone. “See,” he said, waving toward the red post box gleaming in the sunlight, “it’s not real. It’s just for decoration.”

“It’s nice.” The teenager nodded as if they were sharing a secret.

“And another thing,” Jin said. “You need to put an address on that envelope. It isn’t going anywhere like that.”

As he turned to go, he heard the boy laugh. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. This is to her brother. He’s been dead since before I was born.”

* * *

The second time a letter appeared in the red post box, Jin marched it across the street. The same teenaged boy answered the door.

“Here,” Jin said, thrusting the envelope forward like a dagger.

The teenaged boy raised his hands in surrender. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“Give it back to your grandmother. Tell her to stop putting letters in my post box.”

“I can’t,” the boy said. “She doesn’t understand.”

“Make her understand. It isn’t real. Her letters aren’t going anywhere.”

“It makes her happy,” the boy said, “and she isn’t hurting anyone.”

“It makes work for me.” The cranky plaintiveness from before had crept back into his voice.

“How hard is it to take a letter from a box.” Not a question, but an indictment. That the boy was right made it even more galling.

“If she does it again, I’m throwing it away.”

The boy shrugged. “Okay.” He shut the door.

Jin was so astonished at the boy’s insolence that he stood for a moment, unable to move.

Why was this boy here anyway? The neighborhood association handbook was clear about residency rules — no one under the age of 55 could live here. If the grandmother was as disabled as the boy suggested, she should be in the assisted living facility on the far end of the town square, not staying alone in a private residence with a teenager as her caregiver.

He’d have to keep a watch to find out what was going on. Maybe tell someone at the neighborhood association. Report the situation. Report the boy. The idea made him feel both powerful and petty, an uncomfortable nexus where men like him — rule followers, hard workers — found themselves more and more in this age of social justice warriors. Wasn’t that the term? He’d heard it on TV back in the days when he used to watch the news.

The next day on a hunch he unlocked the post box and found two letters in the mail collection bin, one addressed to Johnny Alder, but the other with nothing on the outside. Jin stood beside the post box, hesitating. Not delivering the letters went against his training as a mailman. But the boy had refused to take the letters back, and Jin had warned him what would happen. He carried the letters with him back inside his house.

“If she does it again, I’m throwing it away,” he said out loud. His exact words from yesterday. He said them again as he held the letters over the kitchen garbage can.

But he couldn’t do it. He remembered horror stories of wayward mail carriers who were derelict in their duty — stories of months or even years of undelivered mail stashed in hoarded piles or tossed in dumpsters, crazy accounts that made the news and got people fired and imprisoned.

He sat down with a heavy thump in the recliner. The first one — the envelope to Johnny Alder — was sealed so well that he had to tear it open. The letter itself was short and almost illegible.

Dear Johnny,

Mother and I are well. Keep warm.

Ellie

To his surprise, the letter inside the unmarked envelope was written in an unformed hand — the individual words as wobbly and haphazard as tiny boats tossed by waves.

Dear Grampa,

Gramma wants you to know that she’s fine. The weather is boring (I think) but she likes it. Yesterday I made lemon cupcakes that were good and chocolate ones that weren’t so hot because I left out the baking powder. I hope wherever you are you have cupcakes. I remember you like them.

Love, Malcolm

Malcolm must be the boy across the street. This was why Jin was glad he and his wife had never had children. Such disrespect from young people these days. He’d told Malcolm to stop putting mail in the post box, so naturally he put in more. And what was the point? To be annoying. To have the last word. To defy the authorities.

This couldn’t stand. Jin folded the letters back into the envelopes and walked across the street.

“You think this is funny?” Jin said when Malcolm opened the door. An indictment more than a question. He held the envelopes out.

“Yeah, kinda.”

“It’s not funny! That’s my private property and you’re trespassing on it!”

“Dude, I’m not on your property. My Gramma just put a letter in your mailbox. Why are you so upset?”

Jin felt his face flush. “You put one in, too!”

Malcolm glanced down at the envelopes in Jin’s fist. Jin flushed harder — as much angry as embarrassed that he’d opened someone else’s mail.

“Look,” Malcolm said, opening the door all the way, “why don’t you come in and meet my Gramma. You’ll see she’s harmless. She’s not trying to hurt you.” He pointed at the opened envelopes. “You could have a cupcake. I’ve got chocolate ones just for you.” At that he grinned.

Jin swiveled so abruptly that he saw the ground rising up to meet him. Malcolm’s arm was suddenly around his waist, righting him.

“You’re welcome!” Jin heard Malcolm call out but he didn’t dare turn as he marched back across the street past the shiny red post box to his own door.

* * *

A plastic grocery bag with two slightly smushed lemon cupcakes was sitting on top of the post box the next morning. Inside the box was a single letter without a name on the envelope. From Malcolm, most likely. The cupcake and a note of apology, or perhaps a verbal poke in the eye, the cupcake a satirical exclamation point.

He sat on the rocker on the porch to read it. The letter was not addressed to him at all but to Malcolm’s grandfather, an almost wistful remembrance of a time they’d picked lemons together in an orchard. Remember how you said to choose the ones the size of my fist? My fist must have been so small back then!

The cupcake was sweeter than Jin liked. His wife could have taught Malcolm a thing or two about baking cupcakes. Every Halloween in their old neighborhood she’d made dozens decorated like jack-o’-lanterns and witches’ hats, wrapped them in cellophane, and handed them out to the hordes of trick-or-treaters who ran across yards and arrived in giggling bunches with their bags opened like the mouths of baby robins.

After they moved to this gated adult community, she seemed taken aback that their doorbell rang not a single time on Halloween. Yet every year she made cupcakes and set them on a wobbly side table beside the front door, hopeful, and every year she packed them up on All Saints’ Day and took them to the residents at the assisted living center.

At other holidays she’d baked lemon pies and lemon sticky bars, pecan pies and chocolate chip cookies as big as saucers. You’re lucky to have such a good cook for a wife, the director of the assisted living center told him. He knew it. In the three months since her death, he’d had to cinch his belt two holes tighter. A bowl of canned soup or a half of a sandwich — he rarely ate anything else these days. He’d tried once to make scrambled eggs and scorched them, angry with himself for being so helpless, angrier with his wife for dying and leaving him to fend for himself.

He finished the lemon cupcake and ate the other one, too.

That afternoon the weather was the kind of winter afternoon that drew so many retirees here — faint cirrus clouds feathered across an unreal blue sky, a warm dry breeze. Jin walked to town, out of habit matching his breathing to his steps, surprised at how quivery his legs felt by the time the stores came into view. Only a few months since he’d hefted a mail bag and walked for hours!

His thirst drove him to Starbucks. He’d been here only once — a misbegotten adventure with his wife when they’d first moved into the neighborhood. The marquee over the counter was just as baffling now as it had been then: Small, medium, large replaced with vague quantities. Italian drinks and fictional beverages. Frappuccino? Caramel macchiato?

A young woman in a black polo shirt took his order.

“Would you like to add a piece of cake or a cookie?” She nodded toward a glass bakery case beside the register.

The taste of lemon cupcakes was still on Jin’s tongue. He pointed at what looked like lemon pound cake.

He found a seat at a round mesh café table in the corner where he could watch the line of people shuffling slowly forward. So many people, everyone speaking with assurance when they placed their orders.

The frappuccino was undrinkable. The lemon cake, however, was almost as good as his wife’s. He ate it so quickly that he was embarrassed, mashing his finger to scoop up the few stray bits on the paper plate. At a lull in the line, he bought two more pieces to go.

Malcolm was in the front yard raking leaves when Jin walked past.

“The yard service does that,” he called out. Malcolm paused. “Your grandmother pays a monthly fee for that. Leave that for them.”

Malcolm made a showy swipe with the rake over the scattered leaves. Stubborn boy! What was that phrase his wife used to say? Cut off your nose to spite your face?

He crossed the grass and held out the Starbucks bag.

“This is what lemon cake should taste like.”

* * *

Dear Grandpa, the next unmarked note read.

Gramma says when I write to you, I shouldn’t worry you with what’s happening here or you won’t rest easy. But I hope you don’t mind when I tell you that school in California sucks. There’s a gang at my school so we are always on lockdown. The worst part is that the girls are all stuck up bitches. When Gramma gets better, I’m going back to my dad’s in Washington. Really, though, don’t worry about me. Rest in peace, Grandpa. I’m really okay.

.P.S., Sorry if I sound like a dick.

The gangs Jin knew little about, only what he’d heard on the news. But the keen disappointment of being ignored by pretty girls, he remembered that all too well. He’d always been short and stocky, his eyes too narrow and his nose too broad to be called handsome. In high school he’d tried to woo — if such a word was still a word — a classmate named Rima. Rima Something. Rima Marks? Marquez. Rima Marquez. What a crush he’d had. What wasted effort, all those passed love notes she never answered.

The second envelope was addressed to Johnny Alder, but when Jin opened it, he saw Malcolm’s hieroglyphic handwriting. Dear Brother, it said,

Mother and I think of you often and hope you are well. Mr. Sanders agreed to sell the property next to the creek. The water is still as clear as glass and full of so many fish that you can catch them with your hands. You would like it.

We love you, Ellie

That Malcolm and not his grandmother had written the letter was alarming. Jin’s mother had herself slid into Alzheimer’s this way, misplacing time and place and finally the words that anchored them to any meaning at all, words that slipped away like guests ducking out of a boring party.

The next time Malcolm came to the post box, Jin was waiting for him.

“Where’s your grandmother?”

Malcolm was visibly wary. “I’m mailing these for her.”

Jin held out his hand, but Malcolm shook his head and reached around him to shove the letters through the mail slot. Jin nodded.

“You need some help. The assisted living center —”

“I’m fine,” Malcolm said. “We’re fine. You can rest easy.”

* * *

The organic grocery store had a counter along the wall with prepared meals ready to heat — spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed cabbage, skinless chicken breasts smashed into nubby Israeli couscous and kale — edible, filling, allegedly nutritious, the best falling far short of the worst meal his wife had ever cooked. Still, Jin started supplementing his soup and sandwich diet with a few prepared meals a week. He bought them in threes, dropping off two with Malcolm, who accepted them with a simple thank you. Was it his imagination, or was the boy getting taller and thinner? The letters continued to come, three or four a week, all of them in Malcolm’s handwriting. On the days the collection bin was empty, Jin was disappointed.

He waited a week after the letters stopped altogether to cross the street and ring the doorbell. Jin rocked slowly forward, listening for the sound of footsteps. The only noise was the wind stuttering across the tops of the trees.

The next week, a For Sale sign appeared in the yard.

* * *

Town became too far to walk. When the last prepared meal grew a carpet of green fuzz, he tossed it and a sour carton of milk in the trash. Except for some stiff apples and hairy carrots, the fridge was empty. Jin was loose inside his clothes. Even with his belt cinched to the tightest setting, he had to pincer his fingers on his waistband to keep his pants up.

Soon he stopped changing clothes in the morning, wearing flannel pajama bottoms and an oversized T-shirt as he puttered around his house. The farthest he walked was to the end of his driveway to unlock the red post box and check the collection bin. It was discouraging, seeing that empty bin every day. More than discouraging. Stupid, like waiting for Rima Marquez to answer his lovesick notes.

He consigned the post box key to the kitchen junk drawer and stopped walking to the end of the driveway at all.

One day the bell rang and Jin gave an involuntary shudder. Malcolm with news? But on the other side of the door was a letter carrier, his arms cradling a stash of mail, fliers, and newspapers. Jin was abashed. He’d become one of those eccentric elderly clients on every mailman’s radar — people who needed looking after, who had no family who would know if they died in their beds.

Jin thanked the carrier, plucked the bills from the stack, and threw away everything else. He bagged the trash and set it beside the door.

For the first time in many days he took a shower and changed into real clothes. As he picked up the trash, he retraced his steps and fished the post box key from the junk drawer before heading outside.

A large moving van was parked across the street. A woman with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair was directing the uniformed men who lugged her furniture out of the truck and up the uneven flagstone walkway.

“Be careful with that!” she scolded one of the movers who tipped a wooden rocker upside down to carry it. “That was my late husband’s.”

She looked up as Jin approached and introduced himself. “That’s my house,” he said, pointing, “the one with the red post box.”

“Nice to meet you,” the woman said, her voice curt and preoccupied. She kept glancing away at the movers, as if she could corral them with a look.

“You can use it if you want to,” Jin said.

The woman turned her attention to him. “Excuse me?”

“The post box. The people who used to live here wrote to family members who had … passed on.” She screwed up her expression and he could see that he was confusing her. “I think it made them feel better. You know, to stay in touch.”

“I see,” the woman said, but Jin could see that she didn’t.

“I’m a retired mailman. It’s quite all right.”

The woman nodded before turning her attention back to the movers. “That goes in the upstairs bedroom!” she called out, following two men carrying a wooden steamer trunk to the front door.

Jin recrossed the street and unlocked the post box. The collection bin was empty, as he had known it would be.

But not for long. That rocking chair was a treasured memento; his new neighbor, the widow, missed her husband. She’d write to him sooner or later.

For the first time in a long time, Jin walked to town to buy something to put in his fridge — not as good as anything his wife could have cooked, but adequate. Adequate was fine. Adequate would do.

The moving van was still across the street when he returned home. He heated one of the prepared meals and ate it, watching the movers’ progress from his kitchen window.

The sun was starting to set when they returned the handcarts and heavy furniture pads to the back of the van. As they drove away, Jin sat down on his porch and watched them, a paper tablet on his knee, picturing his wife as he rolled the pen between his thumb and index finger. Remember those lemon cakes you used to make, he wrote. Remember how I ate every crumb?

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Comments

  1. I admit I felt a bit sad that your beautiful story did not give us some bit of relief from the loneliness. I also admit that night in bed I conjured up the two lost souls together. Loved the vintage Staffordshire mail box theme. I want the novel…

  2. I remember reading your columns in The Charlotte Observer, Kay. It was a nice surprise to see your fiction in The Saturday Evening Post. The story ends on such a poignant note, one that reminds us there is a lot of loneliness out there in the world.

  3. I enjoyed the story and was sorry it ended so abruptly. I guess I can make up the next chapter myself!

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