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   c i v i l    s e r v i c e

--- D E B O R A H   C O R R E N T I


Gray, blue, civil war, civil servant. The route is tedious and he talks to himself, repeating a senseless mantra. He folds the cuff of the shorts to cut the abrasion from the stiff stripe. Swish-a-swish, gray-blue, swish-a-swish, blue-gray. He chants to the tune of his large thighs rubbing together. The irritating stripe is gone, but a knot of clear plastic thread quickly erodes the skin between his legs. He curses it as it catches and yanks a leg hair from his skin.

"Good afternoon, young man. First day?"

"Yes ma'am," he says. "How did you know?"

"The uniform. Seen dozens of mailmen over the years. Don't know why they don't wash 'em for you first. Better yet, get you something made outta cotton instead of that plasticy polyester stuff."

"You ain't kidding." He tries to slip into her dialect. "I ain't even half through the route."

"Let me pass a little secret to you -- petroleum jelly. Just rub a little between the thighs. Keeps 'em nice and slippery and you won't get that chafing. Here, sit tight while I get you some."

He is embarrassed, but the red spot on his leg throbs. She extends an age-spotted hand twisted like gnarled roots. He takes the petroleum jelly, passes her a slim stack of mail, and turns his back discreetly to lubricate his legs. He quickly trots down the front path to the next house. He is forty minutes behind the recommended schedule and doesn't want to get sucked into small town conversation. Besides, he took this job to escape strained office-type conversation. To enjoy some solitude and fresh air and hopefully whittle away the sixty pounds he has gained since high school.


She waits anxiously on the porch. He had hoped since he was early he might miss her. A chapped-lip smile spreads across her face -- a face that might once have been pretty and full, but is now a deflated mask of scared flesh, mottled with spider veins and framed by wiry gray braids.

She ignores his impatiently dancing feet and begins one of her stories of lost youth that have become their tradition. "Didn't always live in the country, you know. Actually grew up in the city -- Addison and Western. My family lived in one of those cramped apartment buildings. They were built so close together. In fact, one day I was chasing a ball and it went right between two buildings. Georgie, that was my boyfriend, told me that we were too big to fit between those buildings. Nonsense, I said -- I was thin as smoke back then. Slipped right between those buildings and fetched the ball. Only problem was that I couldn't back out. Try as I could, I was wedged solid between the walls. Georgie ran and got my mom. She hollered at me. Told me I was always doing stupid things. Anyway, she called the fire department to get me out. Got this big tool and actually spread those two buildings apart and pulled me out. Still, they dislocated my arm. That's why I have arthritis so bad now."

"They actually moved the buildings?"

"Hard to imagine, isn't it?" she asks. What is hard for him to envision is that she was ever thin as smoke. "But I swear to you, I was completely stuck in there and they moved them just ever so much." She approximates the distance with her warped fingers.

The hem of her worn yellow housecoat puffs in the breeze and reveals legs, encased like two raw sausages, in knee-high nylons. He looks into waxy eyes, tries to strip away the effects of time and see the gangly, energetic girl. She is too far away, hidden behind cataracts and crow's feet. The empathetic time he allots expires and he leaves.


"Oooh! A letter from my daughter. Here, sit down, Daniel. Let me see what she has to say. Hold on and I'll get you some lemonade."

He looks at his watch. His time is good and it is hot. He rests on the cool cement steps, not impatiently today -- the job being somewhat lonelier than he anticipated. She waddles back with a sloppy drink and a photograph which she shoves under his nose, supposing all the world as nearsighted as she. "Isn't she beautiful?"

The face surprises him. A deeply-buried eerie likeness of her mother. The same eyes and mouth, but less complicated. "Did you look like this?"

"Oh, I was never as lovely as Georgia. She is the proudest thing in my life. She's an attorney in New York. She got all of her father's brains."

"Her father, George?"

"Oh, no. I never married George. Maybe you know Georgie. I hear he's a mailman somewhere in Will County."

"What's his last name?"

"You know. It's a funny thing. As much as I loved him, I can't remember his last name. Kids are like that, you know. They don't really have last names to each other."


The picture changes him. He hurries through the early route so he can hear more.

"Yoo hoo, Daniel." She waves at his familiar gait. "I need to mail this letter. It's to my daughter. You know the one I showed you a picture of."

"Yes, I remember."

"She's getting married, and I need to send her this card."

"Congratulations." He tries to mask his disappointment. "When is the wedding?"

"Next month. She says she'd like me to attend. Of course I can't go to New York, but I've invited her and her new husband to Thanksgiving. I need to get this to them right away."

"It's only September. I'm sure they'll have plenty of time to make arrangements."

"Thanksgiving in the country is so lovely. Real turkeys and strong colors. It was so cold in the city, not just the temperature you know, but the whole holiday season. Frozen turkey, frozen pumpkin pie, pasty canned yams. Georgie and I used to sneak up on the roof of our building after dinner and compare food we had spit out and stuffed in our pockets. It was an annual contest to see who could smuggle the most disgusting food. My mother considered turnips, of all things, a traditional staple of the holidays. So, I always had a breast pocket full of half-chewed turnips.

"One year, Georgie smuggled up a whole can of collard greens, still in the can. He did that because I said I didn't believe there was such a thing -- I think they were from the south or something. He was right. There they were -- collard greens, whatever they really are. To this day they've never crossed these lips. Anyway, we were up there running around and laughing, and he dropped his apartment key right between the two buildings. Given my history, I certainly wasn't about to fetch the key. His parents were at the neighbors and he was supposed to be at home in bed, so he had to go down for it. When he was down below searching for the key, I accidentally kicked that can of collard greens right over the side of the building. They landed smack on Georgie's head."

"Jesus!" Daniel screams with unfeigned emotion.

"Oh, it was terrible all right. Left a huge moon-shaped gash in his head. The hair never did grow back there. He's probably one of the few mailmen that wears his uniform hat every day."

"Is this why you and Georgie aren't close any more?"

"Oh, no. Georgie was such a sweet boy. Forgave me right on the spot. It was an accident, you know. I can surely imagine that a tin can of collard greens really hurts when it hits your from six stories up, could possibly kill you, but still, right then and there, he forgave me."


He doesn't recognize the dark green car in the drive. An auburn-haired woman with the haunting face appears on the porch. She's in denim and flannel, but the manicured fingertips and expensive haircut remind him of women in his past corporate life.

"Hello," he says shyly. "Where is Ms. Westfell?"

"Inside, fixing lunch. I'm her daughter, Laura."

"I didn't know she had two daughters."

She is puzzled. "She doesn't. Just me."

"Oh, sorry. I thought her daughter's name was Georgia."

"Laura is my middle name. I prefer it to the other."

She drapes her arms loosely across the back of a paint-flecked rocking chair. She absentmindedly rocks the chair, her thick red hair tumbling over the back. He has the urge to sit and wrap her hair around his throat. To smell the city in her hair.

"It's funny you should mention that name. I don't think of it often. I was in law school before my mother told me that I was named after some childhood flame who grew up to be a lawyer. Someday I'll have to look this George person up in the ABA directory."

A sudden breeze stirs up a cyclone of brittle leaves from the porch floor. They swirl noisily around her feet. Tiny fragments break off and drift into the folds of her shirt. She doesn't notice the brown twig snagged in her hair. It is the excuse he has waited for. It makes her look a little foolish, but she doesn't know this. He could reach over casually and comb the soft waves with his thick fingers, gently removing the intruder. Only he can see it, making her briefly more endearing, bringing her to his level. She holds out her hand for the mail, the impatience visible in her wiggling fingertips. He glances past her, at the anxious, aging face in the window. "Well, say hello to your mother for me." He leaves her as she is.

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