POST OFFICE — Chapter 1

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“In a democracy, civil disobedience and moral rebellion are partners in freedom. Ain’t that right, Brian?” He stopped his pacing in front of the luncheon table in the swing room to stare down at Brian.

 “You read too much, Tom.” Jessica unwrapped a tuna fish sandwich and hesitated before she bit into it. “Remember, Tom,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a child, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste. A couple of brain cells should only be asked to absorb so much information in such a short time.”

“Arrgh!” was the typical response that Brian had come to expect from Tom, and when he watched a satisfied Jessica bite into her sandwich, he had to grin.

“I’m serious, Brian.” Tom sounded hurt.

“I’m not really into politics,” he said. Tom looked like a sad but giant six-foot eight-inch, three hundred pound teddy bear.

“What are you into, Brian?” Jessica asked keeping a steady eye on him. She slowly licked a piece of tuna fish from her upper lip.

Brian twisted uncomfortably in his chair.

“But if you just accept everything you are told, you are no longer free—the people who interpret the rules in self-serving ways gain total control. Pretty soon you’d be serving them, and your democracy is shot to shit.”

“You’re taking this pretty seriously, aren’t you?” asked Brian.

“Yes!” Ramon and Jimmy walked into the swing room and sat down. Tom pointed and said, “Ask Jimmy what happens to people who don’t fight oppression and domination at its roots.”

“OK,” said Jimmy. “I’ll tell ya, bro. Those poor Northern Irish live under a dark fucking cloud.”

Tom looked puzzled for a moment. “No, I mean like you, Jimmy. Blacks.”

Jimmy looked shocked. “Black? Like me? I’s black? Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy!”

“Arrgh!” said Tom as he stood, shaking his head. “For Christ’s sake, what are you all—slaves to your own ignorance?”

“I’m just a dancin’ fool, bro. Dip and duck from the punches. Run and hide ‘til the trouble finds you.”

“You can’t keep on running, though,” he said to Jimmy, pleading with him. “That’s my point. Nothing ever changes until you turn around and fight. People have even died for their causes.”

“Did you by any chance get another letter of warning, Tom?” Brian asked as Tom started out of the room.

“Yes, goddamn it!”

“He was an hour late for work Monday morning,” Jessica said. She rolled her eyes. “He lives a mile away from work, but he got ‘stuck in traffic.’ Can you believe it?”

Tom put a big meaty hand on the door and leaned back in. “My home is in Mexico. Enjoy your slavery.”

With that he turned and went out on the dock to sort raw mail.

“Mexico?” asked Jessica.

“He speaks better Spanish than I do,” said Ramon. “I’ve heard he was raised by some Mexican-Indians. He has a house here but still thinks of his old village in Mexico as home.”

If Ramon had heard that, they all knew it was true. Ramon knew a little something about everyone.

“Seems like we don’t know as much about Tom as we thought we did,” said Jessica.

“We know the sucker’s leading the league in L.O.W.’s,” said Jimmy.

“If he gets another letter of warning he’ll be suspended again,” said Ramon.

“Maybe he’s right,” said Brian. He shook his head and began scooping up his lunch bag and sandwich wrappers. “Whipcracker and Dunn have been dumping all over us lately.”

“And don’t forget that mutha-fuckin’ Weasel,” Jimmy added vehemently.

“Wish we had a postmaster with balls,” said Jessica.

Brian laughed. “I didn’t know we had a postmaster at all.”

“If he had any balls, we wouldn’t have half the problems we do.”

“What’s he look like?” Brian asked Jimmy.

“Henry Whynaught? Sucker’s about $6,000 dollars lighter than he used to be for stickin’ up for that slimeball, Weasel.” Jimmy’s smile reflected his personal satisfaction. He was referring to an EEO case he had won against the Post Office. Tom had his way of beating the system, or equaling the odds, as Jimmy would rather put it, and he had his.

Brian stood up and was immediately embarrassed by Jessica’s bold once over.

“Oo-wee! That Karen better appreciate what she’s got, honey.”

Brian made his escape to the reg-cage trying to ignore the burning in his cheeks. Her flirting would be much easier to accept if she weren’t so beautiful and so single-minded in her advances. The longer he stayed around her, the more he felt his defenses melting. She was obvious in her intentions, and Brian found that to be quite a weapon against his resolve.

But he always found refuge in the reg-cage.

The reg-cage really was a cage—it was a ten foot square, wire-walled and wire-ceilinged container in the middle of the workroom floor, standing ten feet high. Brian dug out his key and entered. Moments after signing in he was on a rolling stool near the back of the cage writing up second notices on some of the C.O.D.s stacked on the floor.

Lenny Nicks walked up and stuck his head into the pass-through opening where Brian transferred accountables to the carriers. Lenny was standing up on his toes, once again trying to compensate for his short stature in any way he could. Sometimes he stood on his toes; sometimes he stepped on the toes of others. Either way bumped him up to imagined heights he could never reach based on personality or respect alone.

“McGraw! I got a late carrier.” He frowned as Brian looked up. “I need him on the street, now!”

Brian stood up from his second notices and walked over. “No problem, Nicks.”

Lenny scowled at the emphasis Brian painted on “Nicks,” and he said, “Are you trying to be funny?”

Brian sighed and stared at him.

“Just give him his crap so I can get his ass in the street. Now!” He slammed a finger down on the ledge to accentuate his demand, staring for a moment at Brian.

Brian shrugged.

“Soon as you move.”

Lenny’s face reddened, and after a final glare he whipped around and stalked away. Lou Lambier casually leaned onto the reg-window ledge, and he and Brian followed the Weasel’s departure, the hitch in Weasel’s step giving away his fresh irritation at another disrespectful employee blind to the royal treatment he deserved.

“I got into a little trouble for being late this morning.” Lou was still frowning after Lenny’s fleeing figure. “I think I might have pissed him off, but I can’t be sure. He’s always like that.”

“Still want to be a supervisor?” Brian asked him.

Lou turned and grinned. He occasionally substituted for one of the regular supervisors, and was seriously considering it. “If I do, I think I’ll have some big shoes to fill.”

“Gigantic.” They both laughed, not at any of the Weasel’s shortcomings, but at the importance of superiority the Weasel put on himself in compensating for his own perceived deficiencies. No one cared but Lenny, but his constant hostile demeanor made his insecurities open targets for those he tried to bully.

Brian issued two registers and ten certified letters to Lou, and Lou signed for them. As the register clerk Brian controlled all of the valuable articles of mail, or accountables, such as C.O.D.’s, registered mail, and certified mail that needed to be signed for by carriers before they took them to the street to hand deliver to customers.

People who sent out mail in this secure manner wanted a paper trail of delivery. Lou would now get signatures as he delivered each letter, or he would leave a notice to show the customer that the Bay City Post Office now had it, ready for them to pick up at their convenience. A second notice would be sent out a few days later if still unclaimed. If not picked up at all, at the end of the notification period it would be returned to the sender.

“Got a couple of Princess House C.O.D.’s for you, too,” Brian said. He opened the cage door to slide the two large parcels out to Lou. C.O.D.’s, or collect-on-delivery items, were a little different than other accountables—they required payment as well as a signature before they could be delivered.

Breaking the accountable chain by losing either the article or proof of delivery could jeopardize a postal career, and in a city the size of Bay City, the accountables stacked up. Working the reg-cage kept Brian busy and on his toes.

Lou grabbed the nearby dolly and piled the C.O.D.’s on top of each other to take to his vehicle.

“Try to stay out of trouble,” Brian said with a nod toward Weasel’s duty desk.

“No problem. At least I get to go out on the street.” Brian shook his head and frowned, and Lou grinned, adding, “You’re the one who has to stay in here all day with those clowns.”

“No reprieve,” Brian agreed. Lou hurried down the aisle toward the loading dock, and Brian repeated softly, “No frickin’ reprieve.”

At noon he was working on writing up C.O.D. second notices near the back of the cage when he heard Tom and Whipcracker arguing next to the time clock fifteen feet away.

“How could you lose my leave request?” Tom asked.

Whipcracker looked up defiantly at Tom and asked, “What request?”

Brian groaned at the all too familiar confrontation.

“You keep telling me I have to wait two days for approval, then you lose the damn thing.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Short. If you want Thursday and Friday off this week, I think it’s a little late to be submitting a leave request.” He grinned malevolently while scratching his rotund belly and added, “If you want to submit for next week, however, there’s still time.”

“Aw fuck!” said Tom slamming the time clock and replacing his card. “You’d just conveniently lose that mother-fucker, too.”

“Hey; if you need to discuss this problem of yours…” Whipcracker was positively beaming.

Tom stared balefully, just long enough to break down Whipcracker’s surge of gratification, and then he turned on his heels and stomped toward the dock exit.

Brian went up to collect registers from the customer window.

*****

Teeth was flirting with a young woman while he weighed her package. He was a part-time flexible clerk filling in for Bob Higgins who had recently retired. Teeth had put in for a supervisory job in Spring Valley and talked as if he were sure to get it. He was forty-four years old and had spent twenty years in the post office, most of it back east from where he had transferred six months ago. He hadn’t put enough time into the Bay City office yet to become a regular clerk, but his knowledge of the window had him filling in for the retired Higgins. Brian liked him and had decided he’d make a good supervisor—that was the only thing he had going against him as far as the appointment to Spring Valley went. But then again, maybe Spring Valley appreciated good supervisors.

“Hey, Brian. I was telling her that she gets the special rate. What do you think—does she qualify?”

The young woman with the baby in her arms was enjoying the attention, and Brian looked at her.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Easily.”

Brian grinned when Teeth smiled his big ivory smile and told her, “For you, only two seventy-four.” That was the normal rate and the woman knew it. It seemed to Brian that to be successful on the window, a clerk had to have an incredibly easy going personality. He’d miss Teeth when he was gone to Spring Valley.

Brian picked up the registers and signed delivery notices and went back to the cage. He wondered who would be taking the place Teeth was subbing for. So far management hadn’t posted Bob Higgins vacated job and no one had been given an opportunity to bid on it. They seemed to have something planned out for the position already, but these managers acted as if the information was a government secret.

I hope Teeth doesn’t take his cue from what he’s seen here, Brian thought. Tom Short had recently submitted for three leave requests that Brian knew of, and each of them had somehow been misplaced or lost by his and everybody else’s good buddy Whipcracker. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Between Whipcracker, Phyllis Dunn, Darrell Diamond and Lenny Nicks, who had earned the nickname Weasel, a kind of dark cloud had been slowly settling down upon the employees of the Bay City Post Office. And Postmaster Henry Whynaught had done little to relieve the atmosphere with his invisible act.

*****

Brian felt the cold when he rode his Suzuki home that evening. The early bite of winter—still three months away—was in the air, and although mild in southern California, it was still more evident on a motorcycle.

Karen was home, for a change, and thankfully delivered pizza was to be the main course. Charlie and Natalie Sharp were sitting in the living room when he walked in.

“It’s Friday!” he said. He noticed Karen reaching into the refrigerator and a look of panic crossed his face. “Who let her into the kitchen?” Despite her occasional valiant efforts, Karen and the kitchen were a volatile combination.

“No sweat,” said Charlie swinging his lanky body around to grin at her. “She’s just grabbing me a beer.”

“Oh, ease up, you guys,” Natalie said. “Don’t you think you’re a little hard on her?” She had her legs crossed and an arm over the back of the couch. She looked comfortable in her blue jeans and yellow sweatshirt sitting next to Charlie.

“Yeah,” said Brian sarcastically while tossing his gloves and helmet into the entryway closet. “Tuesday she burned a perfectly good Caesar’s salad.” He looked up hopefully. “We’re still having pizza, aren’t we?”

“Why do you pick on her?” asked Natalie.

“Natalie would like something to eat, Karen,” Charlie said with a grin.

“No, thank you,” said Natalie quickly. “Go ahead—pick on her.”

“OK, you wise guys,” said Karen. She let the refrigerator door shut and pulled a bottle opener from a drawer. “I’ve been working hard, too. And unlike you weekday warriors, I will also be working hard tomorrow. I really don’t need this abuse.”

She settled onto the couch on the other side of Charlie and handed him a Corona.

“I should be happy,” Brian said while walking over to plop into an easy chair. “At least you’re home tonight.”

When Karen frowned and took a deep breath Charlie and Natalie exchanged a quick glance.

“So, you’d rather I stayed home, had babies and spent hours in the kitchen cooking up meals for you?” She stared at Brian, adding, “I could save a lot on shoes, too, running around barefoot and all.”

“Everyone can’t be like my little Natalie,” said Charlie, trying to break the tension. Natalie looked at him in disbelief, and then punched him in the arm.

“C’mon, honey,” said Brian. “I’m only kidding—in a selfish way.”

“I know.” She slumped forward and picked up her bottle of beer, unconsciously rolling her hand around on the condensation. “I’m afraid I’m a little sensitive to that seldom home business.” Karen leaned back and nodded. “Probably because I’m seldom home.”

She took a drink of her beer and looked sadly at Brian. For a moment there was an uncomfortable silence.

“And besides,” said Brian. “I really don’t want you spending hours in the kitchen cooking meals for me.” He grinned when Karen rolled her eyes and smiled.

“Damn! What terrible timing,” said Charlie, pulling at his beard and rolling his eyes at Natalie. “A Kodak moment, and me without my camera.” He looked thoughtful.

“Let’s see now, it’s Friday, we’ve got beer—pizza’s on the way—so, hey! Can we cut the bull-shit?”

They all laughed, sliding back into their normal banter, and Brian was glad to see the momentary tension eased. He left enough of that at work. Besides the television station had its demands on Karen to be met, especially lately, and the least he could offer was a little understanding while he enjoyed the time they did have together.

The pizza arrived, and when they had polished it off Karen rolled a marijuana joint that they passed around. Natalie, Charlie and Karen leaned back on the sofa, and Brian had his feet up on the slightly inclined easy chair.

“You know something?” asked Charlie. “Karen rolls a nice number. This is like a double martini at the end of a hard day. Thank you, Karen.”

“You’re quite welcome, Charlie. It offsets my culinary abilities somewhat.”

“Why do we smoke?” asked Natalie of the room in general.

“Because it’s like a martini at the end of a long hard day,” answered Charlie.

“No, I mean why do we get high at all?” Natalie taught English at a junior college, and she liked clear answers to her questions. It would seem that Charlie could meet those demands since the work he did on computer programming also required precise answers, but Charlie found it easy separating the rigid structure of work from the relaxed and carefree habits of leisure.

“I get high to make less sense.”

Brian laughed and said, “Good example.”

“Pot leads to heroin.”

“What?” Charlie asked doubtfully.

“Yes,” said Natalie. “According to a recent poll, 96% of all heroin users had used pot at some time in their lives.”

“Oh, OK,” said Charlie. “Statistics.

“Did you know, honey,” he said, “That approximately 99% of all rapists, car thieves, heroin addicts, politicians, and doggy-diddlers had milk at some time in their lives? It’s disgustingly true. Take me away.”

“But it’s a drug.”

“I don’t do drugs—and none of you do, either.”

“Marijuana’s a drug,” Natalie persisted.

“No, I don’t think so. Coke, meth and heroin are drugs. Marijuana is martini.”

“Even if you believe that, the pot burns our lungs, it boggles our minds, it reduces our sex drive…” Natalie shook her head.

“But it makes a person feel good,” said Charlie.

“What was the question?” asked Karen. She giggled at their mock surprise.

“And you wonder why I married that woman.”

“It’s illegal; FDA has studied it for thirty years or so and not found a significant use for it…”

“It retards glaucoma and reduces nausea associated with radiation treatment; it relieves anxiety, especially that caused by schizophrenia,” Charlie said, pulling himself to the edge of the couch—he was on a roll. “It’s been medically proven to help people with multiple sclerosis and a ton of other neurological diseases. It raises the consciousness to a lower level…”

“Huh?” asked Brian.

“… and I consider this preventive maintenance.”

“‘Raises consciousness to a lower level?’ I’m too high for this.” Brian rolled his eyes and put his hands behind his head.

“What do you mean?” asked Karen.

“I mean you’re more sensitive to detail, the smaller picture, the little facts that add up to the obvious whole.”

Natalie jumped back in. “Would you want your pilot high while coming in for a landing at Lindberg Field? Or how about someone so high on the freeway that he can’t remember why he’s even on the freeway?” Brian loved it when Natalie monitored a debate. She ignored very few relevant points.

“No, of course not. I’m not glorifying pot any more than I would glorify cigarettes or alcohol. I think pot should be made legal but the user made responsible for his actions the same as if he were drinking. And no kids.”

“The only thing I can see wrong with us using it,” added Brian, “is that it’s illegal.” He remembered something Tom Short had said earlier at work. “You tell me how that makes any sense in a so-called democracy.”

“Like I said before,” said Charlie, “It’s like that martini at the end of a loong, long hard day.”

“What was the question?” asked Karen, and they all laughed again.

“Long hard day?” said Natalie. “Is that something you’ve read about? I wonder what your definition would be.”

“Yeah, let’s hear it,” said Karen.

“Well, that’s like getting to work ten minutes earlier than you had planned, the coffee machine is broken, spending a solid hour—and I’m not talking about any kind of break during that hour—spending a solid hour on the console, grabbing a printout wrong and getting a paper cut from it, going out to the car to drive home and noticing you’ve barely got enough gas to last the week.” Charlie wiped a hand across his forehead. “The only thing that keeps me going is knowing I’ve got a smoking martini waiting for me after such a long, long, long hard day.”

“Whoa!” said Brian. “I’m surprised you can make it at all.”

“It’s a bitch.”

“Get off it,” said Natalie with disbelief. “If you smoked a joint for every hard day you’ve ever had at work, you wouldn’t even know what marijuana tasted like.

“None of us here has it better than the tall bearded one,” she said to Brian while pointing at Charlie.

“Who has it the worst?” asked Karen. They all looked at Brian.

“Don’t go there.” Charlie groaned. “I don’t want to hear another postal horror story.”

“I’m with Charlie,” said Brian. “I smoke to reduce the accumulated stress. There’s something that will mess up your health. Stress.”

“And as often as you get pissed off at work, your stress levels must be working overtime,” Charlie added.

“Getting pissed off really pisses me off.”

“Excellent observation,” Natalie said while the others laughed. “But isn’t it sometimes better to face up to a stressful situation?”

Brian sobered up and looked at Natalie. He frowned and shook his head. “That’s what Tom says. He says we should fight fire with fire. But I think they’re driving him crazy. Especially Whipcracker.”

“I wouldn’t want Tom upset with me,” said Karen. “He may look like a giant teddy bear, but there’s something diabolical about him.”

“He’s right about one thing; you can’t deal with these guys on an equal basis,” Brian continued. “They can do unfair things to you that you can’t logically respond to. Your words don’t amount to much when they are balanced against theirs. They are the bosses, after all. Normal people wouldn’t take advantage, but these guys do.”

“I told you not to get him started, damn it!” said Charlie. Karen smiled after him when he pulled his lanky body out of the sofa and went to the refrigerator for another beer.

“Tom’s biggest problem is he tries to fight them.” Brian shook his head. “He doesn’t realize that it’s a no win situation.”

“I can’t believe that you can’t find a way to deal with those managers.”

“Well, Natalie,” said Brian. “I guess it depends on how far we are willing to go. Tom’s bottom line is to shoot the bastards. I know it’s just talk, but that’s a very scary thought.”

He paused, and they all let that sink in. “It’s almost as if he has a reason for more anger at them than the rest of us. It does seem like they have singled him out lately. And for no apparent reason.”

Charlie had stopped his puttering around in the kitchen to lean on the counter with a beer in his hand and a frown on his face.

“Bring me one of those beers,” Brian said to him, breaking up the short silence.

“I get so tired of these horror stories,” Charlie mumbled when he came back. He handed a Corona to Brian and plopped down onto the sofa. He looked at Natalie and said, “Why couldn’t we have made friends with sexual deviates—wife swappers, or nudists, or someone like that?”

Natalie looked back at Brian.

“Well, Brian. I still think you should turn that stress into creative energy. You might draw up some answers to your problems at work. Even the silliest ideas would ease the tension and might actually lead to some sort of solution.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. But believe me when I say it’s hard for us to think rationally at times. At least for me. I get so pissed off and…”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Charlie. “And getting pissed off really pisses you off.”

“… defensive,” Brian said, grinning at Charlie, “Especially knowing that rational thought is a meaningless weapon against that bunch.”

“How about that Padre’s game last night?” Charlie asked Karen while leaning back and crossing his long legs.

“The main thing is not getting drawn into their traps,” said Natalie. “I’m not kidding myself here. I know that it’s easier for me to say than for you to do, but sometimes all an intrusively malevolent person is doing is seeking out the weaknesses in others that they can exploit. And now you’re associating these local managers with the entire operations of the postal service.”

“Uh oh, time to go,” Charlie said to Karen as he sat back up. “Deep thinking accompanied by multi-syllabic expression makes her horny. Let’s go, dear.”

“Are you sure it’s not just you, Charlie?” Karen asked.

“If your weaknesses, like anger and stress, aren’t exposed but rather shielded by an unyielding armor of nonchalance or muted indifference, then any attack against them loses all of its force.”

“Maybe we could stop at a motel on the way home.” Karen punched Charlie in the arm. He stood up and chugged the nearly full bottle of beer and said, “You’re driving, Natalie. My arms are sore.”

“Huh. I never thought of that. It would be nice if we could come up with something, at least in our own defense, but it’s not as easy as you might think,” Brian said. “Like I said, I can’t even explain to anyone what goes on in there. And that’s a huge part of the problem—it’s an indescribable, yet overwhelmingly intense feeling.”

Brian stood up with the others and followed Natalie and Charlie to the door.

“Well, at least you seem to understand it more than most people do,” Brian said.

“I think I get it,” Natalie nodded. “And I also think you’ll come up with something. When you do we’ll be here to help.” She frowned in thought, then added, “By the way, you should find out if there is really more going on with Tom. If he’s talking about shooting people, then the thought really has crossed his mind. Without clear-cut motivation it seems extraordinarily antagonistic even given the circumstances, bad as they are.”

“Wow. Can we go now?” Charlie asked. “Hope we make it to the car.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get out of here. We didn’t think you’d ever leave.”

“We’ll be back for the next exciting episode of ‘Post Office Hell,’” said Charlie. “Good night!”