Nicole was day-dreaming.
Well, not day-dreaming exactly, more like letting her mind skitter along on a stream of consciousness.
It’s how she spent most of her days.
Nicole had not grown up wanting to work for the post office, but after she got out of college, there weren’t a lot of prospects for a history major without a teaching certificate.
“What were you thinking?” her father had grumbled, as if he’d had no idea what she’d been doing for the last four years.
It wasn’t like she’d kept it a secret. She’d lived at home all through college, helping take care of her mother, writing her papers and doing her reading in the wee hours when her mother finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
Her mother had been very proud of her and one of her last outings had been attending Nicole’s graduation. They’d gone out for Cuban food after and her mother had managed a couple of bites of fried plantains.
One of the last conversations her mother had had been an argument with Nicole’s father over their daughter’s future. Nicole had been sad about that. She hadn’t wanted her mother to waste even a second of her precious life worrying about her.
“Once a mother, always a mother,” her mother had said to her when Nicole had protested that she could argue on her own behalf.
“A mother till the day I die,” she’d added, and then she’d laughed.
Nicole had laughed too because that was her mother, refusing to succumb to self-pity, taking refuge in black humor and a rock-ribbed faith that had never failed her, though the chemotherapy had.
To get her father off her back, Nicole had taken the Civil Service exam, breezing through it, and then taken a job with the post office. Her father hadn’t been pleased by the choice.
He persisted in referring to her as a “mail man,” which was just hateful, pointing out there were lots of other Civil Service jobs she could have taken.
`He did have a point, Nicole had agreed, and that mollified him some. She didn’t feel like telling him the real reason she’d taken the blue—that some of the other jobs had sounded interesting enough that she might have been tempted to sink into them like a hot bath, only to emerge 30 years later with a gold watch and a sense that life had passed her by.
She was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to be a letter carrier for life.
Mainly because the post office was coming apart at the seams; it wouldn’t last another 30 months, much less 30 years.
In the meantime, she had a route she liked—not too many apartment buildings—and a salary that covered her bills, and she had time to plan her next move.
She liked that it was easy to leave the job when she took off her uniform. She had friends who were killing themselves to climb up the corporate ladder and were still living on credit cards because they owed so much money in student loans.
There hadn’t been a lot of money left over after her mother’s bills were paid, but what there was went to Nicole. She’d resisted the urge to throw it away on a vacation or on new stuff and had paid off every single debt she had.
Whenever her father gave her a hard time about what she did for a living, she reminded him that her salary worked out to about $40 an hour. That shut him up.
She wished she knew what she could say to make him quit guilt-tripping her.
She’d moved into her own apartment after her mother died and her father was always complaining about how empty the house was.
She loved her father but she didn’t want to be his unpaid housekeeper for the rest of her life.
It irritated her that he affected a helpless air around the kitchen, like he was a dad in a 50s sitcom. He was the same age as Johnny Depp, for God’s sake. And it’s not like she didn’t know her mother’s best friend was keeping a close eye on him.
A very close eye.
Nicole was pretty sure her mother had thrown Ofelia and her dad together in hopes of sparking a love connection.
She was pretty sure Ofelia had better sense than to go along with the plan, but her dad was a good-looking guy and Ofelia’d been a widow since the first Gulf War.
Nicole passed the Starbucks that was the halfway point on her route.
She just had one more street to go down before she could take a break for lunch in one of the little pocket parks nearby.
She thought about stopping in at the coffee shop but it was always crowded at noon and Jackson wouldn’t have time to flirt.
And since Nicole really didn’t like coffee, there wasn’t much point in stopping in if there wasn’t going to be any flirting going on.
She decided to work through lunch. It was a beautiful day—in the eighties in January—because she knew if she broke her rhythm, she might not find it again.
She hated that.
When her rhythm was off, the afternoons just seemed endless.
Most days she was totally engaged in what she was doing. She liked being outside.
She liked being physical.
And then there was the perk no one talked about, the chance to peer into the private lives of strangers.
She rarely admitted that one of the attractions of the job was the element of legalized voyeurism it offered. She knew who was past-due on their bills, and who was behind with their taxes. When she had to collect their signatures on the certified letters the IRS sent out, she usually tried to spare them embarrassment by chatting about some totally innocuous topic. But if they were assholes, she’d cheerfully comment on how it sucked to get mail from the Feds, pretending not to notice as their stress levels spiked into dangerous territory.
She kind of enjoyed that.
She knew what people’s hobbies and interests were, knew how they voted, knew their religious affiliations, and what they did for a living.
There was a woman on her route whose husband was in prison and wrote her regularly.
Nicole never picked up any outgoing letters from her and wondered about that.
She had a couple of compulsive shoppers on her route and delivered something to all of them every single day—along with past-due notices from DWP and the Gas Company.
Speculating about the lives of the people she thought of as her customers kept Nicole amused.
As long as she paced herself.
As long as she had a flow going.
It was sort of like being a secret agent.
Nicole had thought about joining the CIA. She was good with languages and the history degree might have come in handy. But the idea of sitting in a room going through transcripts of intercepts looking for keywords in hopes of identifying targets and stopping terrorist events just made her want to weep.
Somebody had to do it, but she was not that somebody.
Nobody’s threshold of boredom was that high.
The last thing Nicole wanted was to turn into a worker bee and spend her life just droning along.
Still, some days it was easy to just … glide.
Nicole was just finished delivering mail at the last house on the street—a red Netflix envelope, a package from paperback book swap, a flyer for a new Chinese restaurant, a copy of Bon Appetit, when she spotted the shape in the vacant lot on the corner.
From a distanced, it looked like someone had dumped a couple of bags of rubbish and left them to fester in the sun.
If she’d been running late, Nicole wouldn’t have even bothered to look, but she was ahead of schedule because of skipping lunch so she went over for a closer look.
Afterwards, she was very glad she hadn’t eaten lunch.