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June 2024 Issue [Story]

The Pleasure of a Working Life

Illustrations by Miguel Manich

Illustrations by Miguel Manich

At the time of the adman’s death, Gary Minihan had been with the Postal Service for thirty-five years. He spent the first thirty as a letter carrier in Abington, Pennsylvania, where his pragmatic father, who also carried mail, had persuaded him to take what was meant to be a temporary job at the age of twenty-two, after Gary had quit junior college for the second time. That was 1980. A first-class stamp cost fifteen cents. They gave him a walking route that included Paperbark Avenue, where he had lived as a teenager and where his parents still resided. He hoofed the blocks, kept the mail dry, and sweated in all weather—Gary had always been a large man. He did not like the work. He intended, always, to quit, at the end of this year or the next one. He imagined becoming a writer of some sort, of speeches or magazine articles. He brought his customers bills, catalogues, and greeting cards. At Christmas, they gave him Scotch and shortbread. He ate lunch at his parents’ house and sometimes showered there when he got off work, even after he married and moved to Bucks County. As the years passed, the homes on his route were bought and sold, families moved in and out, children grew up and new children replaced them. The older people died, his parents included. In time he stopped thinking of the house on Paperbark as theirs, since the mail he dropped in the letter box no longer bore their names. He ate his lunch in his truck. By 2010, Gary was still a young man—too young, at least, to retire—but he was diabetic and his hips were shot. A friend with more political sense who had worked his way up at the Philadelphia district building found Gary a spot managing the small storefront post office in Kilntown, tucked away in a strip mall off Bethlehem Pike, between the Firstrust Bank and a hair salon. Such things were not usually done, Gary liked to point out. At the United States Postal Service, there were outdoor people and indoor people, and it was rare for an outdoor person to be invited inside.

Gary’s new title was postmaster. Technically, he was the interim postmaster, which did not pay as well as a proper postmaster, but the job was his until he maxed out his pension. Kilntown did not offer mail delivery, only three hundred and ten P.O. boxes. These were rented primarily by small-business owners and a few wealthy people from Chestnut Hill who felt their post office was not well run. Gary had two clerks to assist him. Marla Towey was in her late thirties, with two children and an ex-husband who worked for SEPTA. She could not stay past two-thirty in the afternoon because she needed to be home when her kids got off the school bus, and she lived all the way in Drexel Hill. Alondra Robles was ten years younger than Marla. She had three children, the smallest of whom was the daughter of a man she sometimes called her boyfriend but more often spoke of as though he were a chronic medical condition. Alondra also suffered from lupus. Marla had a herniated disc.

The P.O. boxes were in the outer lobby, which was accessible to the public twenty-four hours a day. Members of the local homeless population could sometimes be found sleeping there in cold weather. The business window was in the inner lobby, which was locked up every night, and behind it lay the work floor where the employees spent their days. Things were busiest around eleven o’clock, when a line of ten or so customers would assemble before the window to buy stamps or mail packages. Monday was the most hectic, Tuesday the calmest. Often an hour would go by in which only one or two people came through the door. Gary manned the window on days when both Marla and Alondra were off or out sick. When one of them was in, he sat in the back, where, besides placing the presorted mail in the boxes after it was delivered in the morning and gathering it to be picked up in the evening, there was never very much to do.

The downtime proved an adjustment. All of Gary’s working life, for ten hours a day, there had been something to march toward—this house and then that house, the next block and the one after. Now he spent most of the day sitting in the closet-size office at the back of the work floor, and hours passed in which he could not say that he accomplished anything at all.

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” said Chuck Feeney, his friend at the Philadelphia district building, when Gary called him at the end of his first week. “It’s a low-traffic store. Basically runs itself.”

“That’s the thing,” said Gary. “What do I do while it runs itself?”

“Got a library card?” asked Chuck. “Got a Kindle?”

The next day, Gary brought to work the first volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, which he had bought not long after he was hired as a letter carrier but had never gotten around to reading. In his first attempt at junior college, Gary had been a political-science major. In his second attempt, he had tried business administration, though it had never been a subject that excited him. His daughter, Caitlin, had graduated from Cabrini College with a degree in communications. Gary had always imagined she would go to a more prestigious school, but Cabrini had given her a field-hockey scholarship, and he could not complain about that. He sat down to read the biography after loading the mailboxes and making sure Alondra was all right at the window. The volume was nine hundred and sixty pages long. Gary read four of them before he felt his attention waver.

He could hear Alondra at the window, agitated with someone. She hung up her phone as Gary stepped out of the office.

“How’s Jeff?” he asked her. Jeff was Alondra’s sometime boyfriend.

“Gary, you know I don’t want to hear that name ever again.” Alondra was on her feet, leaning forward against the counter. Her lupus caused her joints to cramp if she sat in a chair for too long. “That was my mother. Lucas is throwing up everywhere.”

Gary couldn’t remember if Lucas was the oldest child or the middle one. The youngest, he knew, was a girl named Jada. “Poor guy. Lucky he’s got his grandma. I used to drop my kids off with my mom when they were sick. Grandmas make the best doctors.”

“You know, Lucas is in first grade next year,” said Alondra. “Am I gonna be able to leave at two-thirty like Marla does?”

“I don’t think we can have both clerks leave early every day,” said Gary. “We need to keep the window open till four-thirty.”

“Why does Marla get to leave early?”

Gary did not have a satisfying answer. Marla’s special dispensation was a holdover from the previous postmaster. Gary had not wanted to do anything to upset the order of things. Neither he nor his wife, Claire, who worked as a bookkeeper for a screw and bolt manufacturer, had ever been there when the children got home from school. Their kids had gone to a neighbor’s house until they were old enough to watch themselves. But maybe Marla didn’t have any neighbors who could watch her kids for two hours.

“Why don’t you run home and check on him, if you’re worried,” suggested Gary. Alondra lived twenty minutes away, in Olney. “But you gotta come back after lunch if he’s not too bad. All right?”

With Alondra gone, Gary took her place at the window, the Johnson biography spread open on the counter before him. Through the wide glass storefront, he had an unobstructed view of a construction crew digging up the thin strip of lawn next to the McDonald’s across the parking lot. There must have been a pipe that needed fixing. The hole was deep enough that the man standing in it was visible only from the waist up. The other men lingered around the rim, paunchy in their sweat-stained T-shirts. For thirty years, people had said to Gary, “At least you’re getting exercise,” even as he stood before them in all his heaviness, growing wider by the season. It was a hot day for early May, with the sort of heat that a person walking in and out of buildings might mistake for beautiful weather. Anyone who had to dig a ditch would never mistake a hot day for anything other than what it was.

Alondra did not return that afternoon, nor did she call. Back when Gary told Claire he would have two clerks working under him, his wife laughed. “I’m sorry, Gar,” she said, seeing the expression he must have made. “I just can’t picture you managing people.”

Gary had been at Kilntown for more than four years when the adman stopped in for the first time. He had read all four volumes of Caro’s Johnson biography—he finished the final volume the same week it was released—as well as books about John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and Harry S. Truman. So far that summer, he had read about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was halfway through a history of the Panama Canal when Marla told him there was a man at the window who wanted to buy ten thousand dollars’ worth of stamps.

The Kilntown post office sold plenty of stamps, but most customers bought only a book or two at a time. A few local businesses purchased them by the roll. Sometimes the nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph came to stock the mail room at the senior-living facility they operated on Wissahickon Avenue. It was always a pair of them, Sister Mary Elizabeth and Sister Agnes Marie, neither younger than eighty. They would arrive with a check for some arbitrary figure—ninety-six dollars and eleven cents, say—and the value of the stamps Gary sold them had to equal that amount, not one penny more or less. He would invite the nuns to sit with him at the table in his office as he counted out one- and two- and additional-ounce stamps, three- and five- and ten-cent stamps, fumbling with the math on an old RadioShack calculator. He felt like he was back in elementary school, with the nuns staring at him through the glare of their spectacles, embarrassed that he could not do the sums in his head, but he was responsible for every dollar exchanged in the building, and he did not trust himself to get the numbers right on his own.

“Now, this check isn’t going to bounce, is it, ladies?” Gary would tease. “The Sisters of Mercy were in here the other week and warned me about you St. Joe’s girls.” Sister Mary Elizabeth would protest playfully whenever he said things like that, but Sister Agnes Marie never cracked a smile.

Gary stepped out of the office to see who it was who wanted ten thousand dollars’ worth of stamps. A man stood across the counter from Marla in a loud blue suit with no tie. His face was flushed from the summer heat. It was July. The lobby was decked in patriotic bunting.

In the years since he had been at the Kilntown Post Office, Gary had come to think of himself as its proprietor, and he did what he could to make the store a more inviting space. He tried to keep the walls and counters neat, and he decorated for holidays, even the minor ones. All year long, he played music—Bill Evans, Stan Getz, things like that—using the iHome Caitlin had bought him several birthdays ago. Alondra said the jazz made her sleepy and asked if she could pick what was played on alternating days. Gary told her that, unfortunately, only the postmaster was authorized to select the music. The jazz made the post office feel like a café, he thought, even if no one hung out there except himself and the clerks. He had looked into putting a Keurig machine in the lobby, but he was told by his supervisor downtown that it was a potential safety hazard to have customers making coffee. Instead, he bought one for the employees to use in the back. He discovered after ordering it that Marla did not consume caffeine and Alondra drank only Diet Coke.

Gary invited the adman to sit in his office, at the table where he hosted the nuns. The office was not as orderly as the lobby—books and papers cluttered every surface—but Gary thought it was charming in its own way, like the study of a disorganized but respected professor. Only the table was kept clear, because it was needed to get the money together at the end of the day.

“I like that music you’ve got playing out there,” said the man. He reminded Gary of someone, though Gary could not say who.

“I think that’s McCoy Tyner,” said Gary. The man asked what the song was called, but Gary didn’t know. “I’ve just got them all on a playlist.”

The adman’s name was Jeremy Krukoski. He needed two hundred rolls of first-class stamps.

“We don’t keep nearly that amount of stock in the store,” explained Gary. “I can order it for you, but we don’t keep that much lying around. That’s a hell of a lot of stamps.”

Jeremy worked in print advertising. He had business with Bausch + Lomb, the contact-lens people. Targeted mailings, postcards with discount deals, that sort of thing. Jeremy had asked an optometrist for his client list, only to learn that it was illegal for doctors to share such information. Patient confidentiality and what have you. Jeremy had the idea, then, of sending optometrists packs of the postcards pre-stamped, with the address line left blank. He took one out of his pocket and showed it to Gary. “The optometrist just has to fill them out with his patient’s information and drop them in the mail. Bausch and Lomb makes money, the optometrist makes money, the customer gets cheaper lenses, and I look like I know what the hell I’m doing. Everybody gets theirs.”

Gary inspected the card. Fifteen percent off a year’s supply of contact lenses. Claire wore contact lenses, but Gary didn’t need them. His eyes were about the only parts of him that worked as well as they ever had.

“Everybody gets theirs,” Gary repeated. As he said, he could certainly order the stamps for Jeremy. The turnaround would be about a week.

“I knew you could help me. Soon as you came out there, I thought, Here’s the guy I should be talking to.” Jeremy took in the stacks of books around the office. “You writing a dissertation or something?”

“Just like to read,” said Gary. “This place basically runs itself.”

“Sounds like a dream. With me it’s go, go, go, all the time. Nights, weekends. My doctor told me I should meditate. I said to him, ‘Where the hell am I gonna meditate? On the Schuylkill Expressway?’ ”

“You’re young,” said Gary. “Things settle down. They did for me at least.”

“Hell, they’d better,” said Jeremy. “I got little kids, so that’s part of it.”

“That’s part of it,” agreed Gary. “It’s a busy time of life. I have two, grown up now. It’s like they were never in the house in the first place.”

“That’s what I’m waiting for,” said Jeremy. “ ‘A busy time of life.’ I like that. I feel that, you know? So which of these should I read first, once my kids go off to college?”

Gary eased the Truman book out from under three others balanced on top of it. “Here’s a regular guy who ended up becoming president. Sold men’s clothing, originally.”

“No shit?” Jeremy stared at the cover for a moment. It seemed as though he was going to ask a question about it, but instead he said, “We’ll be doing a lot of business. It’s Gary, right? Lot of business, Gary. You get a bonus for moving stamps?”

Gary did not.

“Well, you’re gonna move a lot of stamps regardless. Enough that we should probably talk about discounts.”

After the adman left, Gary sat thinking of his son, Colin. Colin worked in computers—medical software, something like that. He lived in Madison, Wisconsin, with a woman who did the same thing. Gary had asked him if he figured they would get married, but Colin said he didn’t think so. Gary and Colin spoke every couple of weeks, whenever something needed to be said. Gary would usually tell him about the book he was reading, how Truman had done this or that. Colin listened, but Gary could tell he wasn’t very interested. “You know, Truman was almost assassinated by Puerto Rican nationalists,” Gary would say, and Colin would respond with, “That’s great. Listen, Dad, I got this thing I gotta get to . . . ”

When the window shuttered at four-thirty, Marla sat in Gary’s office as he closed out her drawer. Gary saw more of Marla in the summer, when her kids were out of school. That summer, her favorite conversation topic was her cousin, who flipped houses in the city. “You should see these places. Real shitholes. You would never think to live there. But he cleans them up and sells them for twice, three times what he paid.”

Gary wished she would stop chatting as he added up the money. He counted it once, twice, three times and still came up short. “Marla, you’re missing a hundred dollars,” he said, doing his best not to sound accusatory.

Marla stared at him as though he hadn’t said anything.

“You sold a hundred-dollar money order,” he said, looking over the receipts. “Where’s the hundred?”

“It’s in there,” said Marla. “It isn’t in there?”

Gary counted a fourth time. He had never had a drawer short one hundred dollars before. The money went out with the mail on the evening truck. If it was short even one dollar, he would get a phone call in the morning. They looked for things like that, the people downtown.

“A hundred is a lot, Marla,” said Gary. “That’s a lot of money to lose.”

“I didn’t take it,” said Marla.

“I didn’t say you took it. Maybe go look around the counter and see if you misplaced it?”

Marla returned empty-handed, her face crumpled like she might start to cry. In his first few years with the post office, when Gary had made less money, he took a second job delivering pizzas at night. They had just bought the house in Bucks County and Claire was pregnant with Caitlin. A week into the pizza job, he misplaced a twenty—dropped it on the street, probably, trying to stuff it in his pocket—and the manager, a real bloodless son of a bitch five years his junior, deducted it from his pay. The guy acted as though Gary had taken it, as if he was not just a thief but a stupid one who hadn’t realized it would be missed. Gary worked the rest of his shift and then made a big show of quitting. He told the manager he’d be waiting for him in the parking lot. He hadn’t actually waited—he had just wanted to scare the kid. Gary had had more of a temper when he was a young man.

“It’s all right,” he told Marla. He went to the store’s safe. Alondra often turned in her drawer with more money than it should have had. Four or five dollars over, never too much. Gary reminded her each time that she needed to be better about giving people the correct change, and then he placed the extra money in an envelope. On the night Marla’s drawer was short, there were one hundred and eight dollars in the envelope. He counted out a hundred and slipped them into the bank wallet. “You gotta be more careful, Marla. Technically, they can dock your pay for the difference.”

“I don’t know what could have happened,” said Marla. The threat of tears had passed. “I must have accidentally given it to somebody. Really what I’m most upset about is that somebody got an extra hundred bucks and didn’t say anything about it. Just decided it was theirs to keep. You can’t trust nobody these days, I swear to God.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” said Alondra when Gary told her about it the next morning. “I’m the only one making this place any money.”

Gary moved a lot of stamps.

Over the next five months, Kilntown became the third-most profitable store in the Philadelphia suburbs, behind only Chester and Lansdale—much larger operations—owing solely to Jeremy and his bulk stamp purchases. The higher-ups in the district building allowed Gary to keep three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of stock on hand, a previously unfathomable volume for a tiny walk-in post office. It didn’t mean any extra money for Gary, but even so.

“The district manager knows your name, Gary,” said Chuck Feeney on the other end of the line.

“If we’re so important, maybe they can get me one of those ergonomic saddle chairs so I don’t have to deal with this broke-ass stool,” said Alondra when Gary told her about it. He had tried not to sound too self-important as he did.

“We have a store budget,” said Gary. “It has to be spent on improvements for the store.”

“A new chair isn’t an improvement for the store, but a coffee machine is? Nobody even uses that thing but you, Gary.”

Jeremy used the coffee machine. He drank the breakfast blend with three packets of Splenda. He came in every Friday for his stamps, usually dropping thirty-five thousand dollars each time. Gary had been unable to secure him a discount—the Postal Service did not offer discounts on stamps—but the increased stock saved Jeremy from having to place an order and wait a week for it to come through. He acted as though Gary had pulled off a masterstroke of arbitration. “It pays to know a man on the inside,” said Jeremy between sips from his paper cup. “My grandfather taught me that. Worked at traffic court. One of the greatest ticket fixers of the twentieth century.”

On such days, Gary would sit nervously with Jeremy’s check until he sent it off on the evening truck. He was plagued by an irrational anxiety, considering that it was simply a piece of paper, easily canceled and replaced if lost. Really, it was Jeremy who should be nervous, driving off with thirty-five thousand dollars’ worth of stamps in his car. But Jeremy never seemed nervous about anything.

On the evening of Marla’s accident, Gary left work early for a wake. Mrs. Brown, who had lived on his route for a decade, had passed away from emphysema. She had always been kind to Gary, offering him a drink every time he stepped onto her porch. When he greeted her son at the funeral parlor, Gary told him, “I delivered your mother’s mail for ten years.” He had not expected much of a reaction to this statement, but the son seemed oddly moved by it. He ushered Gary around to his relatives, saying, with a gravity Gary found slightly embarrassing, “This is Gary Minihan. He delivered Ma’s mail for ten years.”

Gary was on his way home when he received a call—the first since he had left work—from a man who identified himself as Marla’s ex-husband, Steve. “There’s been an accident on the jobsite,” he said.

Gary turned his Hyundai around and headed back to Kilntown. When he got there, a second sedan was idling next to Marla’s in the rear parking lot. A man dressed like a train conductor leaned against the hood smoking a cigarette. Marla lay in the cabin, reclined on the passenger seat. She rolled the window down as Gary walked up to the car.

“You all right, Marla? What the hell happened?”

“I told you I need a key to the back door, Gary,” she said without looking at him. Gary noticed that she was holding her neck rigid. “I’ve been saying it for years.”

Marla had closed up the store, handing off the day’s mail and earnings to the evening driver at five. She then locked the door between the inner and outer lobby, realizing a moment too late that she had left her car keys in Gary’s office.

“I must have set them down when I was getting the mail together for the driver. Like you told me to do, Gary.” This shouldn’t have been a problem—Marla merely needed to unlock the door she had just locked—but when she inserted her office key and gave it a twist, the blade snapped off. “It’s in there now. Go on and look at it. The door’s stuck in the locked position. So I was locked outside without my car keys. And I don’t have a key for the back door, and I had to get home to my kids, and I didn’t want to call you, Gary, because you told me you were going to a wake and I didn’t want to be disrespectful.” So Marla did the only reasonable thing, which was to climb through the package window that connected the outer lobby to the work floor.

“You went through the package window?” asked Gary. Not in a million years would it have occurred to him to try to crawl through the package window. Not that he could have fit, of course. It was a narrow aperture, about four feet off the ground, where people dropped off packages that already had postage. Just hoisting himself up to it would have been a challenge.

“It was the only way in, Gary!” cried Marla, her jaw jerking above her stiff neck. She had tumbled through the window headfirst and landed upside down. Still she had not called Gary, out of respect for the dead. She called Steve. The smoking conductor confirmed the story with a nod.

“Jesus Christ,” said Gary. “How did Steve get you out?”

“I had to crawl, Gary,” said Marla. “I crawled all the way to the back door, like an invalid. I may be an invalid now.”

“Well, go to the hospital,” said Gary. “What are you doing in this car? Call an ambulance.”

“We have a doctor we like,” said Steve. He seemed unconcerned by the whole affair. “I’ll take her in the morning.”

“I won’t be in tomorrow, Gary, if that isn’t obvious,” said Marla. “You need to call a damn locksmith.”

“How’s Marla gonna act so stupid when she’s got a herniated disc?” wondered Alondra the next morning. “Even the homeless people who sleep in the lobby never try to crawl through the package window.”

Gary paused as he was loading his coffee pod into the Keurig. The possibility had never occurred to him. If Marla could squeeze through the window, surely a homeless person could. People might be crawling in and out of the window every night, and he would never know. He should probably have a talk with Chuck Feeney. Maybe the union rep too. He didn’t think he was liable for what happened to Marla, but who knew with things like that?

“The juiciest aspect of the whole thing is that she called Steve,” continued Alondra. “I bet they’re back at it hard. No way I would call Jeff in that situation. He’d just fuck it all up worse. Plus his license got suspended.”

Around two o’clock, Jeremy appeared in the doorway of Gary’s office, sweaty despite the December air. His suit was olive green. Gary was surprised to see him, as it was not a Friday. “We fucked up, Gary,” he panted. “There’s been a misprint emergency.”

Gary set aside his John D. Rockefeller biography and gestured for Jeremy to sit.

“This guy,” said the adman. “Dr. Vincent Wu—he’s the biggest optometrist in Phoenix. He’s got a fucking empire out there. I spent fifteen grand just on postcards for his clients.”


“So, I misspelled his name. I wrote Vincent Woo, with two os. The cards are useless. I’m out fifteen grand on a fucking spelling mistake.”

“We can figure something out,” said Gary. “Some kind of buyback, maybe. These things must happen.”

Jeremy’s agitation seemed disproportionate to the severity of the loss. Sure, Gary would be in a panic over fifteen thousand dollars, but he would have guessed it was little more than a rounding error for Jeremy.

“Things have been tense at home,” Jeremy admitted, rubbing his temples. “Between you and me, my marriage ain’t in the best shape. Some other ventures haven’t panned out like I thought they would.” He picked up the Rockefeller book and flicked the cover open and shut. “You always keep a calm head, Gary. It makes me calm. You know, I’m thinking that after I get things straight I might expand a little. Maybe I’ll put you on my war council. That’d be something, huh?”

Gary agreed that that would be something.

Gary had trouble returning to his book after Jeremy left. He kept thinking about the job offer—if that was what Jeremy had meant by war council—wondering whether it was serious. Gary had never intended to spend his entire career with the post office, confident that something else would come along. Most of the carriers he had known were not lifers. They had migrated from other occupations—construction, manufacturing, the Army—or from jobs that didn’t exist anymore. Telephone operators, electrotypers. A couple guys used to build ships at the shuttered Navy Yard. The post office was a decent place to land—job security, pension—but Gary had landed there so early. He remembered the day he realized that, since his raises were based on nothing but his length of service, he could calculate how much he would make every year for the rest of his life. It was a bit like learning the exact height of the sky.

Marla went on disability leave. The post office offered fifty-two weeks, and Gary was sure she would take all of them.

“So are we getting a new clerk?” asked Alondra. “Tell them to send someone who can count a drawer.”

Gary cleared a buyback of Jeremy’s misprinted stock for ninety cents on the dollar. It was standard practice, but Jeremy wanted to celebrate. He had Gary meet him for drinks at the pub just across Bethlehem Pike.

Jeremy looked sweatier than at their previous meeting. His tan suit appeared yellow in the dim light of the bar. He told Gary he was drinking Red Bull and vodka, but after the first round—a putrid combination that made his heart race—Gary switched to beer. Gary had never been a big drinker, and was even less of one since the diabetes. He had never been inside this pub, which was more upscale than he had imagined. Suit jackets and cocktails and huge potted ferns. He felt like he was at a wedding reception.

Jeremy had put back a few before Gary got there. “The wife’s leaving,” he said by way of explanation. “What can I say? I still like to party. But it’s not a good time for a divorce, money-wise. Really fucking terrible time, right now specifically.”

Jeremy ordered another round and sat staring at the sports highlights playing on the television suspended in the corner. “How is there enough time?” he asked. “I look at my kids and I barely recognize them. When I was a kid—well, my dad wasn’t around, but my friends had dads. I saw those dads around. Dads used to be around more, didn’t they? Where did they find the time?”

Gary didn’t know. He thought there was a lot of time, almost too much of it. That was how he had read all those books in his office. But it hadn’t always been like that, he supposed. He had lived most of his life in a different time, one that had ended only when he’d stopped carrying mail.

“You’re easy to talk to, Gary, you know that?” Jeremy placed a wet palm on Gary’s shoulder. “You remind me of a priest.”

Gary chuckled. “A priest for the war council?”

“What’s that?”

“The war council,” repeated Gary. “Your next venture. You said you’d hire me for the war council.”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah,” said Jeremy. It was clear from his expression that he hadn’t thought about it since he had said it. “If I could give you a job, Gary, I would. Maybe for the next thing. This Bausch and Lomb thing was a bust. Didn’t go at all like I expected. But when I figure out the next thing, you’ll be the first hire I make.”

“To the next thing,” said Gary, tipping his beer. He felt like a rube. What was he doing in that bar? he wondered. He needed to go home.

“Orthodontists, maybe,” muttered Jeremy. “Invisalign.”

Gary called Jeremy later in the week about returning the stamps. The misprinted postcards needed to be destroyed under postal supervision before a refund could be issued. The call went to voicemail, which was not unusual. Jeremy did not call back that day, which was.

He received a call three days later from a man who identified himself as Jeremy’s brother-in-law. Jeremy had been found in the hotel where he was staying, dead of cardiac arrest. The man implied that drugs might have been involved.

“We heard your message about the refund.” The man sounded irritated, as though this was not a job he thought should fall to him. “That’s some good news, finally. Jeremy left a lot of debts outstanding. I can put you in touch with the lawyer who’s straightening it all out. How anyone ever trusted that guy with money, I’ll never understand.”

Gary had planned to go to the wake. He brought a blazer to wear over his work clothes. It hung in the back of his car all day. But when the time came to turn west onto the turnpike, he found himself driving east toward home.

“What happened to the wake?” Claire asked when he walked into the house, his blazer undisturbed on its coat hanger. She was sitting on the couch watching something on her iPad. She wore one of those headsets with a microphone attached, like an air-traffic controller.

“I didn’t feel like it,” said Gary.

“I thought this was a friend of yours.”

“Just a customer. Nobody there would even know who I was.”

Claire frowned. “So?”

“So? What am I supposed to do, go up to his widow and say, ‘Hi, I sold your husband stamps’? ”

“I’m sure she’d appreciate the gesture.”

“She was divorcing him. She could give a shit about who sold him stamps.”

Claire turned back to her tablet. “Supposed to snow tonight,” she said, after a moment.

There was a foot on the ground by 5 am, when Gary’s supervisor called to say he needed to go in early and shovel the store’s walkway. It fell to the postmaster to ensure that the building was accessible, a responsibility that seemed to Gary, on that particular morning, a profound injustice. Claire warned him not to have a heart attack and fell back asleep. Gary grumbled as he dressed, filled a thermos with coffee, and pulled away from his own unshoveled driveway to risk his life on the roads.

The rear lot was a sheet of white. He didn’t bother to locate a space, stopping the Hyundai somewhere near the center and grabbing his shovel from the trunk. He trudged around to the entrance. A plow had cut a path through the main lot, kicking up an extra three-foot hump of snow in front of the post office that Gary would have to get through. The wind had blown a drift two feet up the glass door. Across the parking lot, barely visible in the predawn light, a teenager labored to clear the McDonald’s sidewalk. With that sympathetic scrape echoing off the concrete, Gary lowered his shovel and went to work.

The snow was heavy, the six inches closest to the ground dense as wet sand. Once it was on his shovel, Gary had nowhere to put it. If he threw it to the left or the right, it would only become the problem of whoever showed up to dig out the bank or the hair salon. If he tossed it in the parking lot, it would impede traffic. The only spot available was the strip of lawn beside the McDonald’s, where he had seen the men digging a trench that first week in Kilntown. He figured McDonald’s wouldn’t mind a bit of extra snow on their lawn. He would work it out with the teen if it came to that.

He went at it slowly, shuffling across the cleared lane and dropping snow on the McDonald’s lawn one shovelful at a time. After the third trip, Gary was sweating beneath his coat. His hips were killing him; his arms and palms were immediately sore. He was too fat, too broken-down. He was fifty-six, but his body felt much older. Too old to be shoveling snow. He didn’t even shovel snow at home—the Zieglers next door had a blower. There was no sound anywhere in the blind morning other than his scraping, the teen’s, and his own gulping breath.

He had been a fool to think there would be an early departure, a special dispensation that would excuse him from his work, his real work, before they had gotten everything they needed from his body. He was only—had only ever been—a set of arms and feet, a back to lift and haul. A shoveler. A carrier like his father. A smarter man would have played his hand better. Cut corners, made a fuss, found a scam. He’d lacked the imagination for that.

As the sky lightened, the hump grew smaller. His shoulders burned, and the sidewalk gradually cleared. He turned finally to the entrance itself, just as the first SUV pulled up to the McDonald’s drive-through. Gary felt his shovel scrape against the threshold. The drift that had formed against the glass crumbled into a pile of fluffy clods.

Then, like some religious visitation, the door opened from within. Gary stood there staring, his shovel laden with snow, as a figure sidled out of the lobby—his lobby, the lobby he had spent the past forty minutes making accessible. It was a woman swaddled in several old coats, her hair greasy beneath a stained knit hat, a hiking backpack slung over her shoulder. She shuffled past Gary without a look or a word, beelining for the road. His grip loosened and the shovel spun, spilling its contents back onto the pavement. Gary watched the woman float silently away down Bethlehem Pike and melt into the wintery day beyond.

After catching his breath, he scraped up the last of the snow and went inside to open the store.

In March, Gary learned that Marla had been fired.

“Faking it,” said Chuck Feeney from the district building. “Faked the whole thing.”

“The injury?” asked Gary. He sat in his office with the phone to his ear.

“The ex-husband, too, at SEPTA. Said he fell off a platform or something like that. He was out for a year, then applied for permanent disability. Social Security sent an agent to check him out, and not only is he full of shit, but Marla’s full of shit, too. They’re renovating a house together on Baltimore Avenue. The guy saw them hanging Sheetrock. Lifting, carrying, climbing, the whole thing.”

“You know, I had my suspicions,” said Gary. “Her story sounded off to me.”

“Well Jesus, Gar, don’t say that. There’s gonna be eyes on your shop after this, especially with all that money you’ve been bringing in.”

“That’s all over now. The guy died. In fact, we still owe his widow a refund for some misprinted stock. It’s getting shredded tomorrow.”

“Probably for the best,” said Chuck. “Too much excitement for a guy like you, Gary, just waiting out the clock. How much longer you got?”

“Five years,” said Gary.

“I always knew she was a liar,” said Alondra when she heard about Marla. “She’d lie about nothing. Miss ‘I don’t use caffeine,’ then I come in after she’s opened up and like two of my Diet Cokes are missing from the fridge. So, like, who took them, Gary? The Diet Coke fairy?”

The next day, Gary drove to the printer in Fort Washington to oversee the destruction of Jeremy’s stamps. A rented shredding truck was set up at the far end of a small industrial park, the useless postcards stacked on a pallet. No snow covered the ground, but it was one of those wet, colorless days in March when it seemed as though the year had already exhausted itself. Two Postal Service representatives—Gary and a woman from the district building downtown—were required to witness the destruction and sign off on the refund.

“Who is Dr. Vincent Woo?” asked the woman, examining one of the postcards. She was younger than Gary and wore an expensive-looking scarf atop her suit. He would not have pegged her for a postal worker.

“Biggest optometrist in Phoenix,” said Gary. “He oversees a vast empire.”

The cheerful man who ran the shredder—he seemed, from the way he spoke and moved, to love his job—let them each throw a few handfuls into the maw of the truck. The cards vanished in a faint purr of dust.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever shredded?” Gary asked him.

“Five thousand origami cranes,” said the cheerful man.

They left it to the man to carry on the destruction while they sat in folding chairs on the near side of the lot. It felt a bit like a tailgate. The woman, Gail, had brought coffee and breakfast sandwiches. They were there for most of the morning, chatting and comparing notes—Gail was a font of gossip about the district building, about Washington, about where things were headed. She took frequent smoke breaks down at the roadside, talking loudly to someone or various someones on her phone. Gary sat by himself and observed the pulverization, thinking, for some reason, of his father.

Years before, an elderly woman had come up to Gary at his father’s wake with a letter folded neatly in her hand. She told Gary that, on the very last day that Francis Minihan ever carried mail, he had dropped a copy of the letter into each of the boxes on his route, and she had saved hers because it struck her as such a thoughtful and unexpected gesture. Gary stuck the letter in his suit jacket and read it in his kitchen late that night, thoroughly tired and slightly drunk. In the letter, his father reflected on how much he had enjoyed serving his customers and watching them grow over the years. How the job was hard, but how the people on his mail route were a source of fulfillment. How, when he had started with the post office, a first-class stamp cost only three cents. The last line above his signature read, “It was the pleasure of my working life to be among you.” Francis had never been a talkative man, and Gary was astounded by how well he articulated his thoughts on the page. He was sure it was one of the best things he had ever read in his life. He decided then that when his own final day of carrying the mail arrived, he would do the same thing, for he felt, in that instant, those same things his father had. He would write his own letter and make a copy for every customer and set it in their mailboxes without a word, to let them know that he had been there among them and that it had meant something. Years later, when he was offered the job in Kilntown, the farewell letter was not on his mind. He only remembered it two weeks after he was situated as interim postmaster, and by then the moment had passed.

’s story “New Poets” appeared in the November 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His first novel, Early Sobrieties, was published last month.

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November 2020

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