I’m the guy that runs the mail room. Everything that comes into this building gets seen by me first. There are packages of all kinds. Just this morning I sorted over three hundred different types of mail. FedEx, UPS, you name it, we see it. I know envelopes like I know the back of my hand. Regular, Windowed, Open Ended, Booklet, Clasp, Pointed Flap. There isn’t a package I haven’t seen. My assistant, Javier, said to me once, “Boss, you save life with envelope and Sharpie,” and man, is he right. I’ve saved marriages. I’ve saved jobs. I’ve saved every goddamned thing at one time or another. I know the people who work in this building better than I know my own family. Kate Millingham on six, mother in the hospital. Elisabeth Fasulli on nine, daily red roses and cards that make Javier blush. Ronnie Tristen on ten, divorce papers I have yet to deliver and don’t know if I ever will. I know what they need more than they do. “You have gift,” Javier tells me.
Once a letter reaches the mail room, they’re all express to me. I tell Javier, “Assume the suits upstairs need it yesterday.” You should see Javier sort mail. Jesus, his arms look like helicopter blades, and all for $4.50 an hour. Javier is a machine. Says, “Boss, mail no deliver by self,” and he’s right. He’s got a wife, grandmother, and five kids still in Mexico.
This is my building and I take the safety of everyone in it seriously, so when anything larger than a letter comes in, I open it. Yesterday a box showed up for Phil Kramer on three. “Here, Boss. Here your Xacto knife,” says Javier as I lean the box against a file cabinet and try to find the best way in. “You have hand of surgeon,” he says.
“Hands,” I tell Javier. “The word is hands.”
In the box is a framed picture of Phil holding a fish the size of a small brick and a note that says, Better luck next year, James and the boys. “What we do with this one, Boss?” Javier asks, and it’s a good question. I think about it for a few hours and then send Javier out on his lunch break to grab a copy of Sports Fisherman. When he gets back, he tells me he couldn’t find a copy of the magazine so I have to go pick it up myself.
“Do I have to do everything around here?” I tell Javier when I return.
“Only you know where find such things,” Javier says to me, and I have to agree with him there.
I mark a page in the magazine on How To Land The Big One And Impress Your Friends, and then put it in an envelope addressed to Phil. “That should help good, Boss,” says Javier.
“It should,” I say, and hand Javier the framed picture and tell him to destroy it.
“Make disappear, Boss?”
“Yes, Javier,” I say. “Make it disappear.”
Javier’s got some talent too, so when an extra-large yellow envelope shows up for Connie Plimton on fifteen, I let him handle it. “You’ll need the small opener for this,” I tell Javier.
“You know best, Boss,” he says, and goes to find the opener.
“Slide it under the glue,” I say, and when he starts in on it I grab his hand to show him the correct angle.
“Do you feel guilt opening?” says Javier as I guide him.
“Guilty,” I say. “Do you feel guilty.” I’m constantly correcting Javier’s English, and he asks me this every time.
“You know best, Boss,” says Javier.
A few weeks ago Javier told me about his grandmother. How she is his village’s Curandera, and that he’s been telling her what we’re up to. I told him that no one can know, not even his grandmother, and then I asked him what a Curandera was.
“Medicine person,” said Javier. “Magic lady.”
“Ah,” I say.
“So all this secret?” Javier asked.
“Top secret,” I said.
So imagine my surprise when this box comes in addressed to Javier. It’s wrapped in brown paper and tied with thin twine. On the corner is a small yellow sticker of a sun with the word Papi written in the center. I snip the twine carefully in all the right spots. I grab my Xacto knife and gently peel away the taped corners. Javier is on a break so I keep an eye out for him as I work. Inside the brown paper packaging is a white shoebox with crayon drawings of Javier’s family sketched on the lid. There’s even one of the grandmother in a rocking chair. I move the shoebox into the center of my desk and open it.
Something like dreams escape first—in thin wispy-white funnels toward the ceiling and collect over the top of Javier’s desk, as if waiting for him to return from his coffee break. Then, a card beneath beige tissue paper, a stick-figure drawing that looks like Marribelle on five, holding the hand of a young girl—perhaps the daughter she’d told Javier and I of, through alcohol tinged tears, at last years Christmas party. When she’d gotten on top of that table, kicking utensils though the air in the suspicious direction of Donald Gunderson on twelve, his wife and three beautiful children in attendance, shock on their faces. And then, under the card, a hand painted porcelain figurine of Dennis Rampfield on nine, Felicitacioines! written on a thin piece of paper taped to its base. Congratulations on the baby.
Before Javier gets back, I stand on my chair and collect the dreams from the ceiling, shooshing them into a plastic bag I’d used to carry my lunch. I place the card for Marribelle in the trash. The figurine of Dennis I place under my briefcase and stand on it—many times, up and down, until the porcelain is in small pieces on the floor. I sweep up the mess, take the plastic bag of dreams and lock them in a drawer under my desk. A place Javier would never think to look.
When he comes back I ask him if he’s still been speaking to his family back home.
“Yes, Boss,” he says, and then asks in broken English how I know.
I hand him the empty shoebox, the crayon drawings of his wife, children, and grandmother, on the lid. At the sight of them, he starts to cry.
“Your grandmother does not help the people in this building,” I say. “I help the people in this building. Destroy the shoebox.” I watch as Javier carries the box out back, tears in his eyes. We don’t talk for the rest of the day.
A little history: when I was a kid, my mother would lock me in the basement for days at a time. She said it was for my own good and even better for hers. I worked out a way to sleep at the top of the basement stairs, curled up and shivering like a package left on someone’s porch. Light from the kitchen made its way under the door and if I crouched down low enough, I could see my mother’s footsteps as she went about her business in the house. The longest she left me was a week. It took two days for my eyes to adjust to the light when she let me out. There’s a history of mental illness in my family, and on my good days I’m almost positive I’ve been spared.
A few months ago I told Javier about the whole business with my mother, he’s the only one I’ve ever told. I didn’t sugar coat it. I told him everything. The food rotting on the basement floor, Mom locking up the house with me in it and leaving for days. We were drunk when I told him. I’d opened a bottle of scotch intended for Gary Hugely on forty-one. I’ve had this job for ten years, and it was the first time I’d opened someone’s mail. I can still remember the intoxicating sense of control as I ripped off the top of that box. It was Javier’s idea to send Gary some literature on The Effects of Alcohol In The Workplace. We had a good laugh over that one. After I finished telling Javier about my mother, he looked sad, like he’d learned something about me he’d always suspected. He tried to put his arm around me. I told him I didn’t like when people touched me and then had him repeat the word touched several times. “Touched,” I said, and showed him how I rest my tongue on the back of my teeth.
The morning after the whole mess with the shoebox, Javier is at the mailboxes sorting the small stuff when I come in. I notice he’s a little slow so I ask him to step it up.
“Yes, Boss,” he says, but doesn’t get any faster. I make a note of it in the Employee Log.
Around noon a package comes in for the president of the company. “Stop the press,” I say to Javier, “we’ve got a big one here.” Javier is at his desk eating lunch and doesn’t look as excited as he usually is. “Get me my tools,” I say as I examine the box. Javier walks to the storage room to get my toolbox.
“Here tool, Boss,” Javier says when he gets back.
“Tools,” I say. “It’s tools with an S, Javier.” And I make a point of hissing through my teeth as I say it.
It takes both of us to lift the box into the middle of the room. “Easy,” I say as Javier drops it the last few inches onto the floor.
“Sorry, Boss,” he says and then adds something in Spanish.
“I think we’re going to need the big tool for this one,” I say.
“Yes, Boss,” says Javier, and I finally see a little excitement in his face. He grabs a tool from the toolbox, a metal putty knife we call The Spatula, and hands it to me.
The box is taller than Javier and comes up to my chin. “Meeister Donaldson President get big package,” says Javier.
“Mister, Javier, mister,” I say while tapping the outside of the box with the rubber end of The Spatula. I admit I do the tapping for show, a little thing that usually gets Javier excited, today he’s not buying it.
I pull the corners of the large box apart with the metal end of The Spatula until the sides drop away and packing peanuts spill out onto the floor. Inside is a wooden cigar store Indian.
“Wooden Devil,” screams Javier, and he runs into the other room. After I explain, he comes back and checks out the object sheepishly. The Indian is almost as tall as Javier, it’s stained dark brown and intricately carved. The smell of fresh wood stain leaks into the room.
“This a sign,” says Javier. I tell him to calm down. “Grandmother would not approve,” he says.
“Enough with your Grandmother,” I tell him. “Help me lift it out of the box.”
Javier and I tip the Indian and move it until it’s clear of the mess on the floor. “This one take big plan,” says Javier, and I tell him to keep quiet while I think. Javier stands there and doesn’t say a word. I can tell I’ve hurt his feelings with the grandmother comment but I don’t care. After the plan comes to me, I tell him to go to the hardware store and buy a chainsaw.
“Chainsaw, Boss?” he says, and I have to draw him a picture.
“Ah, Sierra Mecánica,” he says and walks out of the office.
While he’s gone I do some online research on cigar smoke. I see Oral, Esophageal, and Laryngeal cancer. I see what our dear President Donaldson is in for if he keeps this up—Coronary Heart Disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary something-or-other. I hit print and stuff the pages into an envelope along with the small plastic no smoking sign I unbolt from the wall next to the mail room clock.
When Javier comes back he tells me he couldn’t find a Sierra Mecánica so I have to go out and get it myself. I find a Home Depot and pick up a, Homelite 14′ Electric Chain Saw.
“The guy said this was good one, Javier,” I say when I get back. Javier is sitting behind my desk and I tell him that if I catch him sitting there again, I’ll have to write him up. He asks me about the package to President Donaldson.
“Health concerns and the no smoking sign from over there,” I say pointing to the wall where the no smoking sign once was. I can tell Javier thinks I can do better with this one but I let it slide.
Javier and I lift the Indian out to the dumpster behind the building. We run into Grant Speilman from eight having a smoke. “Looks heavy,” he says, and then Javier asks Grant if they’re still on for lunch but Grant doesn’t answer.
“Sure you don’t need a hand?” Grant says again.
“We’re fine,” I say, and then flash him a Javier’s-my-friend and a leave-us-the-fuck-alone look. The last thing Grant needs is for me to say something about the skin medication I intercepted last week.
We drop the Indian behind the dumpster and I go back for the chainsaw and an extension cord. When I have the whole thing plugged in and the cord run, I lay the chainsaw on the ground next to Javier and tell him to cut the Indian into ten pieces starting with the head.
“The head, Boss?” he says.
“Is that going to be a problem, Javier?” I say.
“No lucky sierra mecánica Indígena.” He says and lights up a smoke.
“Unlucky,” I say. “The word is unlucky, Javier.” I pick up the chain saw and start in at the Indian’s neck. Javier leans against the dumpster and exhales smoke into the air as wood chips start to fly. I idle the saw for a second and yell at him. “Just go,” I say. “Have your lunch with Grant, see if I care.” Javier drops the cigarette at his feet and steps on it while he looks through me. I can see his confidence in me dissolve. He exhales the last of the cigarette smoke and walks away. I rip into the Indian and throw all ten pieces into the dumpster when I’m done. The head is the heaviest and it feels real. I get this warm sensation of excitement as it makes a satisfying metallic thump in the bottom of the dumpster.
As I walk back in I see Grant taking down another smoke. “Did I get a package last week?” he says.
“I’ll have to look,” I say. He’s looking at me like he knows I’m lying. “I thought you were going for lunch with Javier,” I say.
“A few of us on six have been waiting for shit,” he says and scratches his hand. I can see the edge of a rash disappear under his shirt sleeve. “Kathy Dunnham, you know her?” he says. I nod my head. “She ordered a pound of coffee from Guatemala over a month ago and the shit is still not here. Someone sent her a book on Violence In Central America.” I laugh to myself because I remember sending the book.
“Caffeine is bad for you,” I say.
“Whatever,” he says, and I wonder to myself if Javier’s tipped him off. He looks at me holding the chainsaw. “Nice saw,” he says and then drops his smoke on the ground and walks into the building.
Here’s another thing about my mother: she wore the key to our basement on a string around her neck. She never took it off, at least not that I ever saw. Even on her nice days—like when she’d take me outside into the garden and have me help with the weeding—I could see it there, the thin metal chain poking out from under her shirt collar.
There were times too, when we’d sit on the sofa with TV trays in our laps, the appropriate amount of space between us (she’d measured the distance and marked it with tape). She’d take the key from around her neck and place it on her tray. I would stare at it. And I could tell that she knew I was staring at it. Sometimes I asked myself if this was normal, this whole business with the key and the basement. If other mothers had other keys to other basements like mine. I was seven, what did I know?
By my eleventh birthday my mother locked me in the basement with such frequency that teachers at school started to notice I was missing. My mother would write them notes. Doctors appointments and Work Related Childcare Issues, were common excuses. No one thought to send Child Services until I turned fifteen. I remember waking from a long sleep on the basement floor to a flashlight in my face and a warm towel outstretched to meet me. It was the first time I knew that my mother was not like other mothers. To this day, I don’t blame her for what she did.
They sent me to live with the City, at least, that’s what the lady behind the desk called it back then. It was all Sister Mary this, and Father Francis that, and it was a world for which I was completely unprepared. I missed my mother. I missed dinner on the sofa. I missed hard surfaces and time spent alone.
I told Javier about all this too. The stuff about her boyfriends and the sound their footsteps made when mother let them downstairs. Alone time, she called it. I told him all of it. And he stood there, shaking his head in a way that told me he knew what I’d gone through. Like he’d been there with me the entire time.
The City did one thing for me, it introduced me to the mail. Damn I was good. I started in the orphanage’s mail room and it was clear from the start I had a knack. I was fast, I was relentless. I was on the fast track. But even with all that—the purpose the mail room brought to my life, the possibilities, the upward mobility. The biggest thing it gave me were the people, my people—and all without the messiness of direct contact. Mother would have been proud.
Javier and I don’t talk for a week. His work really drops off this time. I start to write his name in the Employee Log every day. He takes to sitting at his desk during lunch with his head down. “You need to step it up, Javier,” I say.
“Grandmother say you think you know best,” he tells me, and then says that I’m loco.
“Crazy,” I tell him. “We speak English around here, Javier.”
A few days later another shoebox addressed to Javier shows up. I hide it under my desk until he goes out for a smoke with Grant. The lid has the same crayon drawings. When I open it, what looks like the ocean pours out across my desk in the form of a heavy mist. I watch as it falls to the floor and makes its way across the mail room to the foot of Javier’s chair. In the box, wrapped in Mexican newspaper, is a small pill container of white cream, Grant written on the label. Beside the container of cream is a small black box with my name taped to the top. I grab it and walk out back to find Javier.
I find him and Grant splitting a smoke in the loading dock. “I thought I made it clear you were not to speak to your grandmother,” I say.
Grant looks around like he doesn’t know who I’m talking to.
“One must talk family, Boss,” says Javier.
“I am your family Javier, get it?” They both look at me and laugh a little.
“You’re fuckin’ crazy,” Grant says and I ignore him.
“What the fuck is this?” I say to Javier pointing at the black box in my hand.
“Open,” says Javier.
“You think I’m going to open this? It’s probably the plague or something.”
“Listen to yourself,” Grant says.
“Grandmother no anger with you,” Javier says to me.
“Angry, Javier. For the love of God, the word is angry!” That’s when I tell him to pack up his shit.
“You Boss,” Javier says.
Grant puts out his smoke. “You need help,” he says, and walks back into the building. Javier follows him in with his head hung low.
The loss I feel is instantaneous but I can’t go back on my word. What kind of boss would I be then? What kind of family doesn’t stick by their decisions? People have to learn that there are consequences. People have to know that when I make a decision I stick to it. This is one thing I learned from my mother.
I stand there in the sun, the black box in my hand. I can see a few people from the building walking to their cars. Henry Hampton from fifteen, the cancer in his leg making it difficult for him to get into his truck. There’s Jenny Valennova from nineteen wearing the dress I’d bought and mailed to her last month after the one that showed up was so obviously not her color. I look at the box in my hand, the sun makes its blackness look almost blue. “Blue for sadness,” I say to myself, and then without thinking, I open it.
I’m not sure how long I’m gone. An hour? Two? When I come back I want to find Javier and apologize. I want to thank him. Tell him that his grandmother was right, that the box is exactly what I’ve been looking for. He’s not at his station and his things are gone. When I sit down at my desk, I notice the locked drawer is open, the dreams gone, the plastic bag empty and loose around the foot of my chair. I stand up and look around the mail room. It’s quiet and I’m alone. I open the Employee Log and notice everything is missing. His phone number, his address, the infractions I’d kept meticulous track of. When I ask Grant how to get a hold of Javier, he looks at me like, Who the hell is Javier?
I spend a week hoping Javier will come back. I picture him sorting the mail, daydream about his arms moving with that magical effortlessness. Then I think about his grandmother and the shoeboxes and this whole mess I’ve gotten myself into with my job and this building.
There’s a funeral three weeks after Javier disappears for Hal Gordonson on thirty-two. Hal apparently had a heart attack in his office while reviewing quarterly returns. I roll Hal’s heart medication around in my pocket as his wife delivers the eulogy during the service. Grant stares from across the church and I worry that he’s on to me. People are starting to ask questions, showing up in the mail room and demanding to know where things are.
I decide I need help so I put an ad in the paper for an opening. The minute Jessica walks in the room, I know she’s the one. She’s tall, dark, and Dominican. In the interview I ask if she has family. “A son,” she says.
“So, you’re a mother?” I say.
“My son’s name is, Frederick,” she says.
“That’s my name,” I say, and then in perfect English she tells me how sad she was to hear about Javier. I roll her application between my fingers and steal a look at the small black box on my desk, my name still taped to the top. “How did you know, Javier?” I ask.
“We all know, Javier,” she says. “As well as you know yourself. What’s in the box?”
“A key,” I say.
I stand up and shake her hand and hold it longer than I should. “Welcome aboard,” I tell her. “We’re family around here.” And then I gesture around the room. “This is the mail room,” I say. “Over there is where we separate the mail. Everything that comes into this building gets seen by me first. That is your desk over there. If you have any questions, you’ll find me here, sorting through the larger packages, making sure everyone is okay.”