By Jeff P. Jones
Featured Image: “Paris Map in Dutch” by Guillaume Delisle
As a letter carrier, she delivered non-urgent messages to people’s houses. Her work brought her past gates, across yards, onto porches, into foyers. She never looked in windows or rang doorbells but on request would hand mail to a resident encountered outside as she exchanged small talk. She would then move on, readying the next house’s letters and advertisements, imagining fingertips releasing sealed flaps, creases tearing, messages sliding into waiting hands.
Each week her teenaged son caused some new havoc. One night he stole her car and was stopped by police forty miles away, coursing a college town’s streets with three friends and a bottle of vodka. The four boys cleaned her gutters the next weekend as she grilled hamburgers and made jokes about her prematurely gray hair.
She sipped her morning coffee and pretended to read the paper as she watched him eat toast.
In his last year of high school he had to transfer schools because of attendance problems. He brought home a stray mutt that he forgot to feed. He began to take phone calls from a man with a comically gravelly voice named Staff Sergeant Thigpen. The son carried the receiver into his room and shut the door. Posters of grimfaced warriors appeared on his walls. He exterminated the squirrels and birds from the backyard with an air rifle. He rarely answered her in a full sentence. In the summer she drove him to the airport. He wore a new pair of running shoes and carried no suitcase.
He came home once after that but the next uniformed soldier to stand on her porch wasn’t her son.
She took a week off from work.
She sat at the kitchen table ignoring the dog when it whined to go outside.
One morning she found herself at the coffee shop where she used to start her day. She stood in line behind a couple who bemoaned the hardships caused by poor cell-phone reception.
After that she started collecting maps of the nearby communities. She sent away for Chamber of Commerce freebies, she photocopied street maps at the public library, she downloaded and printed anything that showed the city and its outlying networks.
She marked with an X the points most deeply embedded in the rows of streets at the heart of each development. She wrote subversively rudimentary directions to these destinations from her house. Twenty-ninth offramp. Several intersections. Veer right. After more than a dozen blocks turn left. The location is on the right. Then she left the maps at home.
She would depart at dusk and head toward the wall of mountains blackening in the west. She kept a penlight trained on the handscrawled directions, her face a ghosted remnant in the window glass. On other nights she left after midnight and climbed the wrought-iron fences of gated communities and stalked their streets in the hours before dawn. She began carrying artifacts with her, and when she located the X or felt that she’d found some other vital location, she made the endpoint deliveries.
His jar of fortune cookie fortunes, each dated in pen, set on the shelf of a playhouse in a yellow bungalow’s backyard.
His wooden frog with the hinged jaw whose interior cavity held movie tickets and tattered receipts and a cigarette stub stained with lipstick and other oddments, placed inside a porch milkbox.
A torn maroon hoodie, hung on a coat rack inside an unlocked foyer of a split-level home.
The books she’d read to him when he was a boy, placed in rows under the sod of a lawn so dense she’d used his boot knife to sever the carpet of roots.
One day her manager called to see when she was thinking she might return to work.
“Hang on,” she said when she spotted one of her son’s baseball hats in the hallway and hung up.
Everything bent under the influence of her new purpose. She palmed a lemon that’d been left in the pantry from the time he was still at the house. It was as hard and hollow as an empty walnut shell and contained everything of his absence.
The daydream she indulged most was of sitting center stage at a large press conference with cameras flashing and reporters waving steno books. She’d been caught lighting a series of fires. The entire Front Range was ablaze. One man in a blue sport coat and a pencil behind his ear was standing. “You keep denying everything,” he said. “But they caught you with the gasoline and matches in your trunk. Why did you do it?”
“It has nothing to do with me,” she would say. “That wasn’t gasoline and those weren’t matches.”
She continued making the night deliveries, fearful only of the years to come when the urgency of her messages would fade.
Jeff P. Jones’s debut novel is Love Give Us One Death, his debut short story collection is Bloodshot Stories, and his writing handbook is Writing for the Reader: Practice in Prose Craft.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.