When we heard the 7:30 mail truck backing into the dock, Merle left his sorting case and headed for the door. "Come on, Perry,'' he called, "I wanna show you something.''
Reluctantly I closed the copy of the new catalog called Victoria's Secret, shoved it into the slot for Kasabian on Bluebird Lane, and followed him.
It was no wonder the casing of mail slowed down whenever these catalogs came in. They were meant to grab our attention. The models' nipples showed under the lacy bras and hair tinged the vees of their shiny panties. Satiny, semi-nude couples lounged on every other page, looking as if they didn't know each other's last names but had been doing it for hours with wild abandon. Ever so elegantly, of course; and having just rested and freshened up a bit, they were now ready to go another elegant ten rounds or so.
Despite the obvious artifice, I found the whole thing sexy as hell. As, apparently, did most of South Fairfax's postal customers.
"What's up?'' I asked when we got outside.
It was cold on the dock; February in northern Virginia and winter had finally decided to pay us a visit. A brief one, I hoped, as did all sane mail carriers north of Florida. All but the closet sadomasochists, that is; but they had mostly been promoted to postmaster anyway.
Merle lowered his voice. "You wanted to get in on one of the pots, didn't you? So now's your chance.'' He waved at the driver, a pudgy type with sunglasses and an unlit cigar sticking out under his beat-up Postal Service cap, walking carefully up the icy ramp. "Hey, Fred, how's the mail look today?''
"Nothin' much, Merle,'' answered the driver, "just the usual junk and garbage.'' When he got closer he took the cigar from his mouth and his voice dropped. "What you got for me?''
"Another player,'' Merle said. "Perry Adams, new RCR. Wants to get in on the payroll pot.''
"No problem.'' Fred shook my hand and flashed a tobacco-stained grin. "New RCR, huh? How you like carryin' mail? Gone into the ditch yet?''
I opened my mouth, but he didn't wait for an answer. "Just gimme a quarter and any four-digit number. The number turns up in the Maryland Lottery next Friday, you win the pot. It's no big deal, couple hundred bucks maybe, but it comes in handy.''
"Yeh,'' Fred said. "Whichever ones you want. Maybe even''--he pointed his cigar toward the parking "--9998.''
I squinted past the chewed stump toward the navy blue Subaru which bore that number on its plate. At my elbow, Merle guffawed.
"That's Ferris's car,'' he said. "9998 is the new plus four add-on for a postmaster's Zip Code. He wants the world to know what he is.''
"Really?'' I snickered. "What's the code for bastard?'' They grinned again. "Okay, put me down for 1211; my birthday is December 11.'' I dug for a quarter.
Fred spoke to Merle. "You got any more for me?''
"Hell, yes.'' Merle reached into the breast pocket of his plaid flannel shirt, and pulled out a postal buck slip, on which I could see a handwritten column of names and numbers. "This's the ones from here and down at the American Legion too. Lotta them guys--''
"Is that what I think it is, Merle?''
It was Mr. Ferris. The postmaster had come up quietly behind us. Now he stood over us, glowering. "I've had just about all the crap from Merrifield that I need about cleaning up illegal activities on postal property, and this is gambling, sure as hell.''
Ferris turned on his heel and opened the back door. "I want you and that paper in my office, Merle. You, too, Adams.''
"Christ,'' Fred said, scratching nervously at his right ear. "Guess I better get the hell outta here. And just for the record, Merle, I don't know nothin' about any pot. I thought you was giving me some phone numbers for the spring bowling league.''
"Sure,'' Merle muttered, "cover your ass.'' Fred retreated gingerly down the frozen ramp. Merle shoved the sheet back in his pocket. "All right,'' he said to me, "let's go face the music.''
Behind us, Silas the clerk was pushing a big All-Purpose Container full of mail sacks off the truck. The APC looked like a miniature jail cell on wheels, and it clanged as it hit the concrete dock.
"Merle,'' I whispered, "what can we get for this?''
"Aw, hell,'' he growled, pushing back an American Legion cap from his shiny forehead, "Ferris thinks he'll get promoted, and have some new asses to kiss. I'll probably get wrote up. `Don't bother me. I'm ready to retire anyway. But you could get fired, if Ferris really wants to make points with Merrifield.''
He shrugged. "Sorry about that.''
"Hey, thanks,'' I muttered grimly.
Just what I need, I thought. Fired as a substitute mailman after three months on the job. It's not like I need the money or anything. It's just what's keeping me out of jail. Damn Heidi and her slick alimony lawyer anyway. Not to mention the tenure committee in the English Department at Arlington County Community College.
Ferris's office was next to the front counter, and as we passed it some big lady customer was giving Andy, the window clerk, a hard time. "My mail hasn't been gettin' delivered til sometimes as late as six o'clock,'' she was saying, poking a thick finger at him. "Yesterday it was all mixed up with my next door neighbor's mail--again. And my Social Security check is three days late.''
Merle grinned back at me. "Mrs. West,'' he whispered. "Late for her monthly appointment at the liquor store. She knows how to raise royal hell when she misses out on her drinking.''
Andy listened to her impassively, chewing his gum and nodding slightly. I saw him glance up at the wall clock as we went through Ferris's door. Andy was a short-timer, and without doubt he could have told us exactly how many days, hours and minutes were left until his retirement.
Ferris was on the phone, rubbing his creased forehead with two stained fingers, between which a cigarette burned. He looked old enough to be my father, paunchy and with a harried expression. He surely was old enough to retire; probably had retired once already, I figured, from the military, like Merle and Andy and half the other Post Office lifers. Today he looked like he ought to do it again.
"Yes, ma'am,'' he said tiredly into the mouthpiece, "I'm sorry about that. We've had substitutes on that route a lot recently, and they're not as familiar with it as the regular carrier. So you're right, the delivery service hasn't been as good or as fast as it should be lately.'' He sucked on the cigarette.
Go ahead, I thought. Blame it on the sub. That's why you hire us RCR's in the first place: to take the rap. I just hoped he wasn't talking to someone on Route 66.
There was a loud knocking on the other office door, the one leading to the lobby. Ferris ignored it, took a quick pull on the cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray. "Yes, ma'am,'' he said again, "I'll speak to him about it, and if we can't get your service improved, somebody will be out of a job. Thank you for calling.'' He coughed and grimaced. "And have a nice day.''
He hung up and rubbed his forehead again. "Christ,'' he said to no one in particular, "that General Kelly's wife on Bald Eagle Court is gonna drive me crazy if we don't get her mail right pretty soon. And the general knows a lotta bigwigs who can cause us trouble, too.''
I felt a twinge of relief. Bald Eagle Court was on Route 89, the one Herman Corson, the other RCR, had been struggling with. So I was off that particular hook.
But now Ferris had focussed in on Merle and me, and remembered why he had called us on the carpet. He tapped another cigarette from a pack on his desk. "Merle,'' he said, pausing to light and suck on the cigarette, "I've warned you before about this gambling. I don't give a damn what you do on your own time, but you know you can't do it here.''
He picked up a memo from the desk. "`Employee Regulation 661-56,''' he quoted: "`No employee while on property owned or leased by the Postal Service while on duty will participate in any gambling activity.''' He glared up at Merle, and continued: "`This includes the operation of a gambling device, conducting or acting as an agent for a lottery or pool, or--''' his eyes moved to me-- '''selling or purchasing a numbers slip or ticket.'''
He dropped the memo. "That just came down from Division headquarters at Merrifield. They're serious about putting a stop to this crap. So I'm gonna have to take action this time.'' He pointed at Merle's shirt pocket. "Gimme that sheet; I wanna see what's on it.''
As Merle's hand moved toward his pocket, the knocking came again, louder and more insistent this time. "Christ,'' Ferris muttered again. "Just a minute,'' he said to us, got up and stepped over to open the door.
It was Mrs. West, and she started right in on him. "Mr. Ferris, where's my Social Security check? It's three days late.'' The thick finger was pointing again, a bit shakily.
Merle's hand dropped back to his side. Looking down at Ferris's desk, I noticed that, lo and behold, right by his phone, only a couple feet from me, lay a whole pad of buck slips. And the top one was blank.
An idea flashed into my mind; it made the palms of my hand tingle. With Ferris at the door, there were only a few seconds to act on it, if I was going to.
I went for it. I tore the top sheet off the pad and folded it down the middle. Then I plucked the other sheet from Merle's pocket and replaced it with mine. Crumpling up the original, I looked frantically around for a wastebasket and didn't see one.
"Yes, Mrs. West,'' Ferris was saying, "I'll look into it personally, right now. You wait there, and if it's in this office I'll bring it right out to you.''
Still no wastebasket, and time was up. I stuffed the wad of paper into my mouth and started chewing.
It was dry and tasted bitter. Full of toxic chemicals, I thought. Lead, mercury, probably arsenic.
Ferris had turned and brushed past us to the inside door. "Herman,'' he called, "we should have gotten a Social Security check for Mrs. West on Hideaway Lane. Look in that backed up mail and see if you've got it.''
I tried to swallow the paper, but it made me gag. My eyes started to water, and I could feel my face flushing. On a second try, the wad went down, but then I felt like I was going to choke and went into a coughing fit.
"Something wrong, Adams?'' Ferris asked, back in his desk chair and pulling again on his cigarette.
"I-uh,'' I said weakly; there was very little to my voice. "It's--why, it's the cigarette smoke, sir.'' I hacked noisily. "Irritates my mucus membranes.'' The best defense is a good offense, right? We'd soon see; I was desperate.
He stubbed out his cigarette. "Yeah. Sorry.'' Then he stuck out his hand again. "The paper, Merle.''
Merle handed it over. Ferris unfolded it and saw it was blank. He looked up at me, his eyes narrowing, then at Merle. "You smartass sonsabitches,'' he hissed.
"Mr. Ferris,'' Merle said brazenly, "I know how you feel about gambling, really I do. I was just gonna make Fred a list of some people who are interested in the spring bowling league, that's all. He'll tell you so hisself.''
Herman tapped timidly at the door behind us. He was short, round, with eyes that bulged slightly, long greasy black hair and a vaguely unkempt look. Merle was sure he was gay--a faggot was his term--and the older carriers studiously ignored him unless it was absolutely necessary to speak to him.
Right now he wore a sheepish expression. "I think I found the check, Mr. Ferris,'' he said. "It was in with a stack of sweepstakes letters.'' He shrugged. "Looked just like 'em.''
Ferris got up and snatched the envelope from him. "Christ,'' he repeated, dismissing Herman with a wave, and turned back toward the outside door. Then he stopped and glared back at us. "You guys think you're pretty damn smart,'' he said. "The inspectors' gonna have your ass one o' these days. Now get outta here and get back to work.''
He opened the door and we left. Behind us we could hear Mrs. West's shrill voice turn to mollified squeals, as visions of thunderbirds and wild turkeys danced on the envelope she now held in her wrinkled paw.
"Gotta hand it to you,'' Merle said to me, "that was pretty slick. They'll get a laugh outta this at the Legion tonight. Guess I owe you one.''
I just nodded, since I still couldn't find much voice, and walked back to my case. There were four feet of letter mail left to stick on Route 66 before I could pull down, get out on the street, and, if I was lucky, stop by Jennifer's and get it on.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.