First Class

With the exception of his mother – with whom he walked the canal every Thursday evening – it had been many years since anyone had spoken to Caruthers. He had aged terribly since we were boys, and even as a man of only thirty-five, his back sloped harshly and his shaggy hair was spliced with silver. Often, you could spot him lugging armfuls of packages into the Alton Post Office, struggling to teeter on one foot while pulling open the tarnished brass door handle with the other. Then, if you had the patience, you would see him leave soon after with an equally impressive, yet noticeably different, crop of parcels. Naturally, vicious small town curiosity followed him like a shadow, and many of us lost sleep at night wondering what “The Mailman” was up to.

Violet Caruthers shared none of her son’s peculiar quirks, and took great pains to balance his hermitage with extreme involvement within the community. She had been the President of the local Daughters of the Revolution chapter since 1965, and sang in the Presbyterian choir every Sunday. In 1974, she was the first woman to join the Elks Lodge, and quickly ingratiated herself to the group by taking personal responsibility of the club’s liquor licensing – a chore for which none had been keen to volunteer. She had been a young mother – only 17 when The Mailman was born – and kept her good looks over the years. In a town of only 1,400 people, Ms. Caruthers was often pursued by men of all ages – myself included.

One night in August, following the wedding of two Altonians, I found myself seated next to Ms. Caruthers at a table near the back of the VFW reception hall. She was wearing a lilac summer dress which looked particularly sexy for such a mundane occasion. Plied with several mugs of beer and the itch of a serial bachelor, I asked her for a dance.

She was surprisingly light in my arms and danced with the fluid grace of a woman who had actually bothered to learn how. As we moved in slow circles, I felt the beer working its way into every vein of my body, settling heavily in my feet and making me clumsy as we turned. Twice I stepped on her toes, but she seemed not to notice. She asked after my family and about my work in the newspaper office. Eventually the conversation turned – as it always did – to The Mailman.

“He’s always liked you, you know,” she said, smiling up at me as the band changed songs.

This was news to me, as the only connection I had to Caruthers was the stacking of our photos in the school yearbook and the nearness of my crotch in that moment to his first home on this earth.

“He says you wave to him in the street, and he feels badly that he never waves back.”

It was true – I had always made it a point to wave to the Mailman when I spotted him on one of his daily trips to the post office. Although why he felt morally beleaguered by his lack of response when his arms were always so full of mail was a mystery to me. The song ended and the band took a break. A few of the jokers in the room took the opportunity to bow deeply to their partners before returning to the bar or their seats. I made for the former, but she hadn’t let go of my leading hand. The alcohol briefly left my loins and returned to my mouth.

“Ms. Caruthers, I don’t imagine you’d like to take a walk with me?” I asked.

We left the hall through the side door and made a hard right toward Alton’s main drag. The  street had gone dark early due to a lack of business – one of the consequences of a large event in a small town. Our hands parted when I held the door, but hers returned to the crook of my arm once we turned the corner, away from the eyes of the VFW crowd. I was terribly afflicted by the gesture.

We walked in silence for several hundred yards, enjoying the air after the heat of the reception hall. She was serene in the stillness, seemingly clear of thoughts and present in the moonlight. On the other hand, I was feverish at the idea that perhaps I would be the one to conquer her mythic celibacy. I began to sweat once again, but remained patient in spite of myself. She spoke.

“What keeps you from leaving Alton, Matthew?” she asked, softly steering us away from Main Street and toward the canal.

I wasn’t surprised by the question. Altonians talked about fuel prices, high school baseball, and moving away. Still, I was careful with my words, imagining only the right ones would lead to where I wanted very badly to go.

“The newspaper, I suppose. It’s still only a quarter and it has a nice little crossword.”

She laughed, genuinely surprised at the answer and perhaps even a little charmed.

“You could take out a subscription?”

“Can’t do it,” I said seriously, “the postage would damn near kill me.”

We continued like that for a while – a silly volley between serious players. It was only when we reached the water that the quiet returned. The great majority of the bugs had died off for the year, and the frogs were making their displeasure known. In the distance were cars and movement, softened by the heavy, artificial drag of the canal.

“Does he ever tell you what the hell he’s doing with all those packages?”

It felt rude leaving my mouth, like cherry pits or chewing tobacco. I wanted it back very badly.

“No. No he doesn’t,” she said.

“The kids think he’s mailing off body parts.”

She laughed softy.

“And what is it they think he’s getting in return?”

I started to share the overwhelming local opinion – he was receiving poison and torture devices – but the joke had run its course. Her laughter had sadness around its edges and to entertain the conversation any longer would be cruel in a way I wasn’t. Instead, I kissed her and felt sober for the first time all evening. Her body gave into mine, soft and forgiving. Her dress slid under my hands, but the passion came and went in a rush. Our lips parted and her eyes left mine. We turned back to the canal and she sighed.

“You know, Matthew, I think postage has already killed me,” she said meaningfully, but the alcohol had found me once more.

 

 

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