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issue 18: may - june 2000 

spanish translation | author's bio

Curbside Mailboxes
by Richard Weems


I: A Problem

All the mailboxes in our community are unique, some in color and style, others in shape. The Randstons have a large head that smiles menacingly when the light catches it right. Mail goes in through the part in its hair, out the mouth. Neighborhood kids feed it gravel, leaves, an occasional dead mouse. Theresa and I have taken great care in choosing ours: pink with blue lettering, "Our Home." White bow ties encircle the logo.
      Just like Sunday evenings, when most everyone in Elm Acres (a pleasant-enough-looking development of equidistant duplexes) is either accepting an invitation to dinner or hosting a couple or two themselves, the mail is a common denominator in our community. On the way to work, one becomes accustomed to the sight of raised flags, the leg in the air on the Cruzes’ crocodile box, as if waiting to be called on. Coming home, one expects those flags lowered, the boxes bursting with a U of manila envelopes and magazines, letters resting nicely in the bottom curve.
      Theresa and me, our problem is the Chevy van with smoky windows that’s parked in front of our mailbox. In place of delivering our mail, the mailman has been leaving angry notes on the van’s windshield explaining how the presence of vehicles ‘parked malapropos’ hindered the ‘unexpurgated completion of a federally assigned task.’ The grammar is exquisite, the font crisp, as if done on a laser printer. Questions? Contact the postmaster.
      No one I know has any connection to the van, or at least admits to it. A van like that (Illinois plates, rust around the handles, a Harley-Davidson magnet on the side) becomes an immediate topic of conversation in my community. A van like that blocking mail delivery is an absolute scandal.
      On my way home, I can feel people watching me, peeking from behind curtains, stealing glimpses from the corners of their eyes. Theresa is too embarrassed to talk to anyone or leave the house. When neighbors call, she is curt with them, always with an excuse: a cake is burning, she has dye to wash out, another call is coming in, something important.
      The first two notes were an inconvenience, the third a nuisance. No flyers or junk mail, no free samples. No guaranteed winnings from Publisher’s ClearingHouse. Theresa and I spend our evenings in an uneasy quiet. No sales to discuss, no catalog items to point out to each other, nothing to distract us from our situation. We used to read aloud the form letter invitations to try the MasterCard Platinum or join the National Geographic Society as if they were letters from old acquaintances. We felt like everyone else then.
      Now, three days’ worth of outgoing mail sits on the coffee table before us—bills due, business reply mail, a radio survey—next to three of our mailman’s notes, lined side by side. Every now and then Theresa sees somehow they are not yet lined up perfectly and makes adjustments.
      When we’ve had enough of our silence, we watch television, and every now and then we fancy ourselves like the people in that box who can lead normal lives and talk to others about their problems and solve them in thirty minutes or less. It is then that we will hold hands, but for only a few moments, for then our silence grows, things boiling inside me, and we let go of each other before anything else can happen.
      Day four:
      It is the kind of day you can tell is cold from just looking out the window. The very clouds look frozen.
      Though there’s already a note on the van’s windshield when I come home, I remove the pile of outgoing mail with feigned delight, as if the old, stale envelopes in my hand were crisp, glossy flyers with coupons galore, or junk mail making offers in large capital letters that strain the seams of the #10 regular business envelopes with the cellophane-covered front windows (Aah, the smell of unopened post).
      What hangs heavy in my gut, though, is the knowledge that nobody will believe this façade. Martin, our mailman, is of the new breed of mail carriers: systematic, precise, at work six days a week. No sense of justice, no sympathy for keeping the status quo. It is only through our elderly neighbors, who have nothing better to do than wait by their mailboxes at 3:00 p.m. weekdays, 10:00 a.m. Saturdays, that Theresa and I know his name at all. His postal jeep moves robotically through Elm Acres, the tires stopping, it seems, on the very inch they have stopped on every day. Theresa watches from the front window when Martin comes by, but even when we did get mail, she wouldn’t dare step out the door until he was at least two boxes past.
      I take the note, which is addressed, as always, "Dear Postal Customer," though Theresa wants me to leave it behind to give the van’s owner a hint to move. Even approaching the van makes my neck bristle, as though there were someone behind those windows made dark by paintings of Arizona sunsets. Sometimes I think I’ve caught a whiff of rotting corpses, stowed away until police surveillance cools off.
      Pat from the adjoining house has come out, accompanied by the swishing of his pajama bottoms. He is considering the sky, one hand hanging leisurely in the pocket of his bathrobe, as he strolls towards the curb. Pat’s other hand keeps a loose leash on Misha, his basenji, who is stalking Pat’s ankles as if they were a natural enemy.
      "Cold," Pat decides aloud when he reaches his barn-shaped mailbox. He rubs his arms and whoops at the chill. Misha yelps at the sudden pulls on her collar. Pat is a pit boss at a casino, third shift. After removing a small pile of letters from his box, he takes a fresh outgoing pile from his robe and inserts them through the barn door. Instead of a flag, a rooster flies.
      I shove the note deep, deep into my pocket and turn towards my house. "It was warmer earlier," I say hastily, "when the sun was all the way up."
      Pat is already musing over return addresses. "Damn psychic networks," he grumbles. "You call once, and here you are, on every mailing list."
      I hum sympathetically, almost on my front porch now.
      But then, "Phil?" Pat calls.
      I stop and bounce slightly, anxious to be back inside.
      "I keep getting stuff for a Tony White. He the guy before me?"
      I shrug, though I remember Tony White well, proudly showing off the letters he’d get from the child in a starving land he sponsored. He even carried around the kid’s picture—a creature black as night, kneeling on infertile ground, smiling with broken teeth.
      Pat shakes his head and pulls back Misha, who is sniffing her way off the curb. "Just that I keep getting porn stuff in his name." He holds up the magazine-sized envelope as he pulls Misha along back towards his own house. "Really savage stuff, too."
      I watch as Pat puts a couple envelopes between his teeth, then folds the porn mail into his robe pocket. Who would have thought? A normal man, Tony White. A young bank executive, dating a tall, blonde woman his age who wore long-sleeved business outfits with scarves, sometimes turtleneck aerobic wear, always something up to the wrists and chin. I can’t help rethinking now what I once thought were innocuous, playful squeals coming through the adjoining wall of our duplex. What images transpired late at night as his living room windows flickered television blue?
      Theresa is in the kitchen, clearly disappointed. She’s using both hands to drink her coffee. I hold out the fourth note for our collection, though I can’t imagine why she’d want to see it.
      "Is he allowed to just not deliver our mail?" She puts her Garfield mug on the counter, brings her fingers to her temples. "Can he just go back to headquarters, or wherever, drop off our mail and tell them, ‘Sorry, that van’s still there’?"
      I want to tell her he can’t, though I’m not sure, but then an even worse thought hits me: Martin at home, feet up before a TV, paging through my Sharper Image catalog, checking out the balance on the Visa Gold, steaming off Bugs Bunny stamps for his collection (he has to be something like this—no one can be that precise and lifeless). But Theresa’s hands are nervous already, moving between her forehead and the coffee. She needs practical advice, directing toward a course of action, not more trouble, and certainly no stories about how the former neighbor we had over for dinner on occasion, the one who reciprocated, was receiving tapes with group sex, sodomy, maybe worse.
      "Can a pilot," I suggest, "fly to Paris and not land because he doesn’t like the runway he’s assigned?"
      "Exactly." Theresa makes a fist and feigns banging it on the counter.
      "Can he just fly back and tell them, ‘Sorry’?"
      In the end, she doesn’t strike; she lays her fist quietly on the Formica, as though she were setting down someone else’s kitten, then picks up her mug again thoughtfully.
      After a moment, she nods in resolution, her bob swinging momentarily into her face. She says, "Complain to the post office," then, of course, turns to me, as if we have never discussed this before. I thought she understood the embarrassment of it, the vulnerability of making an announcement like this before the whole post office, regardless that the post office is closed by the time I’m off work. It is for the same reason that I leave our mail to be picked up by Martin and don’t drop it off in any pedestrian, public box: around here things are not done that way.
      I know she’s only nervous and desperate. House-bound for four days now, she doesn’t bother changing out of her bathrobe anymore, but still I get defensive when she reminds me that I’m off Saturdays and I have nothing better to do anyway, so I tell her that Pat saw me taking the latest note off the van and even commented on our predicament, though he didn’t, but I can’t help myself. I enjoy her shock, the way the mug falters in her grip, threatening to send coffee and shards of Garfield everywhere, but soon comes the regret, and I go back to how I always feel: knowing my actions never help things, not a phone call, not consulting the best psychiatrists, not touching Theresa’s hair, nothing...
      "You can’t go on weekdays," Theresa reminds me. "We can’t go another week without mail! We’re good people, aren’t we? We look like good people. We’re good people." She brings her coffee to her lips—forcefully, it seems, as if she were cutting herself off.
      I grimace and shrug, helplessly.

II: Sunday, a Day of Rest and a Dinner Invitation

      Theresa has given up on us ever being part of the community again. Saturday morning, I stood by our mailbox and waved to Martin as he approached. I held up a handful of outgoing mail, fanned out Japanese-style, for everyone to see. As Martin left another note under the van’s wiper, I called out, "Nice day, eh, Martin?" Theresa thinks I did this because of my drinking, but I denied it. I couldn’t even remember how much I drank the night before.
      Martin didn’t even acknowledge my presence. His movements remained mechanical, unattached, his uniform cap perched exquisitely on his head, but still I kept on, even as he puttered along to the next box. "Nice day, wouldn’t you say? Wouldn’t you say so, Martin? Did you hear about the Arctic front moving in?" I was screaming by this point, howling. I snatched Martin’s latest note, threw it to the ground and stomped it to oblivion.
      "Supposed to be real cold by Monday, yes sir, really really cold."
      Theresa was crying when I got back to the house. It seemed only natural to grab her arm and yell in her face.
      "You wanted me to talk to him. He didn’t have much to say, Theresa, what do you think of that, huh? You want me to write him a letter?"
      To Theresa, it wasn’t the last straw that only the Kakolyrises, the most spurned household in Elm Acres, invited us to Sunday dinner. The last straw was that I accepted.
      The invitation was for dinner and drinks, though we start with the latter. Douglas Kakolyris, a contractor with forearms the size of my calves, makes what can be loosely called martinis—Absolut stirred with a vermouth-dipped spoon. Theresa has three. She walks unsteadily, her fingers at her chin, when coming back from the bathroom for the eighth time. She refuses all my assistance, even an inconspicuous hand on the small of her back. We’ve been fighting like this: I yell at the mailman, she burns my pancakes; I yell at her, she throws away the remote control; I accept the Kakolyrises' invitation (which came, curiously enough, just minutes after the incident with Martin), she refuses to shower. She merely puts on a clean dress and a lot of perfume.
      Since the beginning of the evening, Douglas has been on about his latest job, the drywall and 1/4" piping and the goddamn roofers. He grips my shoulder as we sit together of the sofa, as if to make sure I don’t run away. Douglas is a huge man, his upper body a wrecking ball with arms. The very weight of his hand makes my shoulder perspire.
      Theresa and Lulu, Douglas’s wife, take the loveseat. They angle toward each other, their knees almost touching. Lulu is round and Asian and tiny. Her feet dangle. Douglas could hide her from anyone’s view.
      And before Douglas can continue with his discourse on the techniques of spackle, Theresa blurts out, "There’s a van in front of our mailbox, and Phil doesn’t know how to do much about it, doesn’t know how to do much about anything," and nods to me—round six. "Martin hasn’t brought our mail for almost a week."
      "A week?" Douglas’s great and round and Greek eyes are wide with what must be forced bewilderment. How can they not know? For a moment, I’m suspicious and wonder what else they could want from us.
      But it is still good to have someone who actually cares to listen.
      "A van?" Lulu is leaning forward on her knees now, about to slip off the loveseat. "You could have it towed."
      "That might do it." Douglas claps his meaty hand to my shoulder again. He leans in close so I can smell the bourbon on his breath. "It’s just been sitting there, right? By this time, I think you can assume it’s abandoned."
      I squirm a bit. "I don’t know," I say. I can only imagine men in dirty flannel shirts and baseball caps with various insignia keeping at bay their unkempt hair, the kind of people who must own a van like that. They are banging on my front door, screaming, "Where the hell is it? Get out here!"
      "We don’t know what to do," Theresa continues. "I can’t tell you what it’s like without mail." She picks up her fourth martini, the one she told Douglas not to make. "You see things around the house you’ve been wanting to forget." She blows me a kiss.
      There is good reason why the Kakolyrises are the outcasts of our community. They live among the back lots, where the cheap units are being built. The area is unsightly, with tracks of red dirt and randomly placed stacks of cinder block. Douglas only has any money because of a lawsuit from a bad accident involving a ladder and a trowel. It’s his excuse to sit around, tell others what to do and get so enormously fat. Through his white Arrow shirt I can see his scar—a long, lightning-bolt seam along the side of his chest that is pinched and puffy where the rolls of his fat meet.
      Lulu is a Korean mail-order bride Douglas bought when his settlement came in. Rumor has it she was a dancer in her native land. Mrs. Dahl who lives down the lane from them claims that Lulu never wears underwear, which causes quite a stir with the neighborhood boys when she steps out on a windy day in her mini-kimono. Korean women, I find, tend to be the least attractive of the Eastern stock, and Lulu proves my point. Her cheeks balloon up under her tiny eyes, and the way her fallen perm flops over her face makes one think of a dark sheepdog. Her thighs threaten to burst her stretch pants. I've heard that on their anniversary she relives her dancing years and inserts rolls of nickels, sticks of gum and bananas into herself for her husband’s pleasure. Some say she can chew the gum.
      Now Theresa is on the verge of telling them everything about us.
      "We have to do something," she says.
      Despite the motion it creates, I barely notice the exchange the Kakolyrises pull. Deftly, Douglas rises from the sofa as Lulu lowers herself from her seat. With but one step, Douglas is on the loveseat, and Lulu plops down into the impression left in what must be Douglas’s favorite spot next to me. Their movements are smooth and quiet. The springs don’t even creak when Douglas sits by my wife, though the imbalance of his bulk forces Theresa to lean in toward him. From another perspective, it might have looked like a dance step: simple, rehearsed, refined, all motion restricted to what was absolutely necessary.
      "It would have been nice," Theresa says dreamily. "We could have been a regular family once. We had promise. What went wrong, anyway?" She looks at me, and I burn with shame. How long have we kept this from others? I wonder. How long have Theresa and I forced ourselves silent and tried acting just like everyone else, even inside our own house? Somehow, I’m glad it’s been said.
      First I notice the look exchanged between the Kakolyrises. A look of acknowledgment, of taking note.
      I then notice Douglas’s hand on Theresa’s knee.
      "You should drink that," he says, motioning to Theresa’s fourth martini. "It’ll get warm."
      Theresa finishes her martini in tiny gulps. Douglas puts his other hand on her back, and rubs it in tight, tiny circles, as if to coax her on, or ease her nausea.
      And only now does it occur to me, so simply that I can hardly believe I never noticed it before: there are no smells of dinner, no sounds of lids shaking from the pressure of simmering liquids underneath. No comforting hum from a ventilating fan.
      "So have you talked to Martin?" Lulu asks. "Maybe there’s an arrangement you can make. Have you gone to the post office?"
      I frown thoughtfully, but again I can feel the anger rising in me, the need to lash out. Theresa’s lips are still on her martini, and I find it a prime opportunity to strike back at her. I tell all, proudly and with volume, about Tony White, the very Tony White who used to live next door to Theresa and me. I add terms like ‘pederast,’ ‘bestiality’ and ‘snuff films’ for effect, though as far as I can tell, Tony White might have been a good friend of the Kakolyrises. Maybe they swapped tapes on occasion.
      Theresa looks at me with some surprise, but what really hits me is the way the Kakolyrises laugh. Douglas even shakes his head, saying, "And I thought I knew it all."
      Elm Acres then opens up to me as if a multitude of car bombs suddenly blew off the front of every duplex. Tony White: A mild-mannered-looking bank administrator who paid his bills, got his mail, drove a nice car. So what if the images he played on TV late at night were less than seemly, less than legal? So what if he did things with his girlfriend so that in the high heat of summer she wore scarves and long sleeve jackets? All that mattered to anyone was that he went to work every day, got his mail and showed us what we wanted to see. I take in a deep breath with my discovery, and the air feels good.
      Then Lulu puts her hand on mine and, looking into my eyes, assures me, "The van will move itself."
      This is all I wanted to hear for a while, but now I need more, much more, and Lulu seems to know this and responds:
      "It will all be taken care of tomorrow, or the day after. Soon enough that you won’t have to do a thing about it." She raises her hand to my cheek and gives me an adoring pat. "No one’s going to look at you strange anymore. You can do all you are doing right now, and no one is going to care, because Martin is going to stop by your house six days a week, just like everyone else, and that will be that."
      "Do you think so?" My voice is barely a whisper, it cracks so.
      Lulu gets up and goes into the kitchen.
      "Finish your beer," she calls when there.
      There is a silence as I gulp down the rest of my Heineken. There we are, Theresa, Douglas and me, staring straight ahead of each other, eyes not meeting, our glasses empty, the drapes all shut. In this moment I love Theresa fiercely, so much I want to cry out about it, but I know we will have plenty of time together ourselves.
      Then Douglas suggests, "Lulu may need a hand with that next round of drinks," and I comply. Almost as soon as I am out of the room, I notice a great stillness behind me. It is stillness free of tension—a great releasing—interrupted only by the occasional sound of something wet.
      Lulu is leaning on the sink, wiping off a drinking glass. By impulse alone, I come up behind her and put my hands on her hips. I rub up and down the polyester from the elastic waistband to the initial bulge of her thighs. She smells sour this close; her hair reeks of activator.
      "Not so hard," she says. "I’ll break a glass," but I can’t stop, and I dare to bring my hands higher, even to the flap where her breasts begin.
      Without rushing, she puts down the glass and turns to face me. Her mouth is soft and wet and tastes remotely metallic. We stop and I pull her to me so I don’t have to look in her eyes.
      "We’re good people," I say. "Theresa and me."
      "Yes," Lulu says. The side of her mouth is pressed against my chest.
      "We’re still going to shun you," I tell her, "just like everyone else. We’re going to spread stories about you and make fun of you and make sure everyone else knows we’re doing that."
      "Of course," Lulu says as she touches that part of me no one’s reached in years. "Come over whenever you like."

© 2000 Richard Weems
spanish translation

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author's bio

Richard K. Weems went to the University of Florida (USA) and currently teaches in Phildelphia. His work has appeared in The Mississippi Review and The Crescent Review, and he is a regular contributor to Pif Magazine www.pifmagazine.com, which nominated him for a Pushcart. His kitty's name in Mathilde, and she may be part rabbit. The author may be contacted at:richardweems@hotmail.com
navigation:                         barcelona review #18                     may - june 2000
-Fiction Jess Mowry - One Way
Richard Weems - Curbside Mailboxes
Adam Blackwell - The Louis Agency
Deirdre Maultsaid - Puppy Dogs' Tails
Javier Calvo - Ned Flanders
-Poetry Dolors Miquel - Two Poems
-Article May and June in Barcelona
-Quiz William Faulkner
Answers to Jorge Luis Borges Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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